NASCAR: Monster Lessons from The Daytona 500

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

With the kickoff of last weekend’s Daytona 500, NASCAR is back on the track after having undertaken a radical transformation of its race series during the off-season.

The Daytona 500 garnered substantial attention for multiple reasons: All three series featured the new three stage race format, where both regular season and playoff points are available. Secondly, Speedweeks showcased the return of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, after being sidelined for the second half of 2016 with a concussion. Additionally, the Daytona 500 featured the debut of Monster Energy as the entitlement Cup sponsor. Without a rush to judgment, several lessons stood out from the crowd.

Segment Racing Might Not Charm Fans with Short Attention Spans

With the Camping World Trucks, Xfinity, and Monster Energy Cup series all in action at Daytona, we witnessed extended lapping breaks between segments. When combined with the clean-up from wrecks, all three races required a lot of couch time. Both the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup races produced over 100 miles of total caution flag lapping, with the Daytona 500 approaching 3 ½ hours in duration.

While only a limited sample, some drivers, as well as fans believed that several “big ones” in the early stages were a result of overly-aggressive driving and a lack of patience sometimes needed in restrictor plate racing. Leave it to Jimmie Johnson, 2016 Series Champion, to sum it up after being wrecked out with a 34th place finish: “Just a lot of aggression, way too early in my opinion.”

While the segment racing may ramp up the in-race excitement, it is still a foreign concept to explain to a new fan and will take time to accustom to for old-school fans as well.

Bring Your Calculator to Understand the New Point Math

The new Segment format can create some wacky point outcomes. Kevin Harvick ended up finishing 22nd at the conclusion of the Daytona 500, but thanks to his segment two win, he is 4th in overall regular season points. Some fans are still having trouble getting their mind around that one.

Under the new point system, a driver that finishes 3rd in all three race segments would mathematically outpoint the race winner, if the race winner fails to place in the top 10 in the first two segments, even though winning the race is arguably the most important outcome.

No doubt the TV partners’ on-screen point graphics are going to get a workout as the regular season winds toward the 10-race playoff later this year.

The Monster Energy Girls created quite a stir throughout the Daytona 500 week. Image Getty Images

Ford in the Championship Hunt This Year

Ford last won a NASCAR Cup championship in 2004. With Kurt Busch winning the Daytona 500 in Ford’s inaugural race with the recently-converted Stewart-Haas team, Ford teams showed speed throughout the weekend, with six of the Top-10 finishers in a Ford, as well as the victory of Ryan Reed in the Xfinity Series race the day before.

Last year, Ford-backed teams won only 20% of the Cup races, with almost all those wins captured by the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. With the switch of Stewart-Haas’ four teams from Chevrolet to Ford, expect Ford to ramp up the win total, as already evidenced the Kurt’s Busch’s maiden victory.

Monster Energy Will Not Generate an Immediate Boost

Aside from pockets of outrage over the Monster Girls’ attire that was not firesuit approved, Monster Energy is taking a studious approach to ramping up its activation with the sport. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the partnership coming together late last year, even though NASCAR had been seeking an entitlement sponsor for almost two years.

NASCAR’s expectations are high that Monster can ideally attract a younger, “edgier”, demographic and raise the excitement level at events. So far, there has been no television advertising directly promoting the connection between the sport and the beverage company.

Monster Energy representatives have said they are still developing an understanding of the marketplace and letting fans adjust to a new Cup sponsor. Perhaps smart, given that NASCAR core fans are a passionate bunch. However, let’s keep the faith that we hear more about Monster Energy’s commitment to the sport than the heat around the female attire in victory lane, which is still more than most NFL cheerleaders showcase.

Ratings Up, Perhaps Due to the Dale Jr Bump

The Daytona 500 sold out in the week leading up to the race, no doubt driven by the star power return of Dale Earnhardt Jr to the track. Earnhardt Jr qualified on the front row for the start of the Daytona 500, and demonstrated his prowess early in the week by leading 53 of 60 laps in the precursor Can-Am Duels.

Fox Sports’ coverage delivered a 7% ratings bump over the 2016 event, but that’s starting from a low base. Overall, TV ratings are nowhere close to where they were a decade ago for NASCAR’s premier event.

It remains to be seen whether this initial viewership and attendance interest will lead to a renaissance for NASCAR over the course of the 2017 season. The next few races, featuring a new aero package and continued segment racing, will be more evident of whether viewers are intrigued by the changes and willing to tune-in based on driver Brad Keselowki’s bold assertion that the new format will showcase “the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

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

NASCAR: In The End, It’s All About The Wheelman

The momentum may seem to be in Harvicks favor, but he has Kyle Busch to get through.

The momentum may seem to be in Harvicks favor, but he has Kyle Busch to get through.

In the end, all things being as equal as they can, it’s really about the driver. The wheelman. The competitor.

If you try and break down what is happening in NASCAR at the moment you can only come to a few conclusions: (1) Toyota has found a way to pull more horsepower and save fuel, which puts them in the hunt. Particularly with Kyle Busch, a true wheelman. (2) Stewart-Haas Racing has found something in it’s handling, but it’s two real advantages are Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. (3) Ford, meaning Penske, has faltered slightly but they have Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

We can try all we want to make it something else, but they’ve finally gotten it down to where the last races remaining will be against these drivers. Note I didn’t say teams, they’ve managed to draw them very close to one another in performance.

Yes, the very tiny things from an engineering point of view matter when you have drivers of this caliber on each other with the voracity we’re seeing, but it has narrowed down to sheer willpower and who can make the best decisions regarding the utilization of their talent.

Harvick at Dover beat everyone like a Minnesota mule, but that was Dover, that doesn’t mean he’ll be dominant at Charlotte, it could be any one of the aforementioned drivers whose team have taken their equipment and passed the engineering minutiae wand over it.

No one is taking this next round lightly and everything they can do to win or stay in the hunt until there are four will be done, no matter how aggressive they get. Conspiracy theories will be rife among the regular racing media and particularly among the fan base.

This hasn't been the final year Gordon was looking for. He seems to be resigned to retirement.

This hasn’t been the final year Gordon was looking for. He seems to be resigned to retirement.

A fistfight isn’t out of the question and if it happens don’t expect points penalties to handed out, NASCAR needs the excitement. The ratings are not improving, nothing beats a good brawl to attract more viewers.

How many Toyotas does it take to win a championship? Conventional wisdom would say all four of them, but that isn’t the case. It’s really Kyle Busch who has the confidence and skill to make that trophy his. All of Gibbs‘s gang are talented drivers, but Busch has the bit in his mouth and the willpower to take on General Motors and Penske/Ford.

With Ford, it’s the ‘Little Train that Could’ with Keselowski and Logano. Both of these drivers are strong and fearless, but with a two car team how much interference will they run into when the field narrows? A hell of a lot.

Hendrick? Their star, Johnson, is out and that doesn’t bode well for the manufacturer’s anchor team. GM knows it so look for heavy attention to be thrown on Harvick and Busch. The irony is that none of these drivers really care very much for each other, Busch brothers included. Only Gordon and Earnhardt have any hope at all in the Hendrick camp. Hope floats and so does that thing in the YMCA pool.

Once the next two races are in the books look for NASCAR to frisk them before they get into their cars for weapons. This is a serious fight that this crop of drivers are willing to wad up their cars over.

What about Earnhardt? It remains to be seen if he can mount the mental challenge and drag talent up from the depths to take this UFC fight on wheels to the finish. When it comes down to it, however, the rest of the Hendrick crew will run for Dale Jr, should he make it to the final race. It just seems that Gordon has resigned himself to retirement.

This is going to be a dogfight and the losers are not going to be as gracious as Jimmie Johnson was at Dover.

This time around, enemies are going to be made and they won’t forget it.

 

NASCAR, Give Us More Road Racing

Kyle Busch and Wife Samantha after his Sonoma road course win.

Kyle Busch and Wife Samantha after his Sonoma road course win.

It strikes me as odd that more road courses didn’t work their way into the minds of NASCAR fans in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. They were wild and rapidly changing times. However, to an American audience, for which NASCAR had built itself, the idea of being up close as the cars ran an oval was more appealing.

Times have changed. Dramatically.

The first live broadcast of a NASCAR race was the infamous 1979 Daytona 500 starring Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers whose crazy leg flailing and wild air punches ushered in the television era of NASCAR.

Road racing was part of NASCAR long before most of the present day fans were born, but not a big part. California was the main player as the west coast demographic seemed to take to the big thundering cars turning right and left.

Big Bill France had often said that in order to have a healthy NASCAR that they needed road racing to be healthy as well. Road racing is where NASCAR actually started. Let’s face it, Junior Johnson didn’t just turn left on his way to deliver his spiritual goods.

Road racing is reviled by many NASCAR fans as not being pure enough and too hard to watch, at track. Television changed that as now one could watch the action from anywhere on the course, not just the grandstands.

The fight that put NASCAR on the map. Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers. NASCAR's first full length television broadcast.

The fight that put NASCAR on the map. Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers. NASCAR’s first full length television broadcast.

Part and parcel to the allure of road racing is just that. You can’t see the whole track so you have to walk around the facility to take in the whole experience. That’s what road racing is, a complete experience where people, not just fans, are in constant motion.

According to Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR EVP, “It is something that is being considered maybe more so for a longer term basis. Obviously, the schedule is full at this point but we’ve really evolved and when you look at the road course action, it’s almost on par with short tracks.

These cars at the end of a race really look like they’ve been beat up and guys are getting out there and really getting after it to where I think we’re putting on the best road racing in the world. It used to be where you used to bring in three to four ringers and they would finish in the top 10. Now our guys are consistently finishing up front and have proven to be the best in the world. So we really like the progress that’s been made. It’s certainly exciting. We share in the fans’ excitement, for sure. But the teams also like the ability to have those two opportunities to win a race and achieve that spot in the Chase.”

Whatever the history, whatever the reason, the modern NASCAR road races are as brutal and as fender banging as was Bristol. Pre-fix-it Bristol.

When you tune into a NASCAR road race, you expect to see the fender rubs, the ‘bump and run’ or ‘chrome horn’ as it’s sometimes called, being applied with joy by any driver close enough to the driver in front of him/her to execute said ‘chrome horn’.

It still seems to be somewhat of a novelty to the rank and file NASCAR fan, but it is gaining in popularity as a direct result of just how physical these drivers are with cars that won’t turn, won’t brake and slide around with 700 HP pushing them.

That sounds pretty cool to me rather than watching cars go around in a circle for 500 miles.

I’ve had several drivers, who are primarily road racers, tell me just how hard oval track racing really is. I believe them. Merely watching the backend of these cars slide around at 190 MPH is an art form.

On the other hand, if you are going to tell the world that NASCAR drivers are the best in the world, as O’Donnell claims, you have to show them and not having a road race in the Chase playoff is not the way to do it.

Arguably the Chase should represent the most watched races of the season. The global economy, alternate leisure activities and life compressing in on you be damned. This should be when most people are excited to see what’s going to happen from race to race.

2015 has been a strange year in many ways across the globe, so no one really knows what the Chase will look like from a fan perspective. However, this should be the year that a new road course is brought onto the 2016 schedule. It probably won’t be, despite every road race, so far, has been a cliffhanger, particularly with the green/white checker in play.

I hope that road racing will find it’s way into the NASCAR mindset soon as the world simply keeps changing and with great speed.

NASCAR needs something as the viewing and leisure time habits of consumers across the world are changing even faster than your 401K balance.

Perhaps two more road courses and at least one in the Chase may bring viewers that NASCAR wouldn’t normally attract.

 

 

Kurt Busch To Marry Up: Ashley Van Metre

Hopefully the incredibly talented Kurt Busch will find peace.

Hopefully the incredibly talented Kurt Busch will find peace.

It’s completely beyond anything anyone would consider normal for someone like me to attempt to get inside the head of one of the Busch brothers, especially Kurt. On the other hand, why not? Brother Kurt now has a brand spankin’ new fiance’.

Racing drivers suffer the same problems that we rank and file folk go through: Depression, anxiety, marital problems and if you’re not one of the top drivers, financial duress. Apart from that it would seem that not much is left.

However these drivers are different animals. They don’t think the way the guy who owns the corner drug store behaves. They tend to be very excitable, easy to lose their temper, sort of like those crazy neighbors that no one wants to make eye contact with.

In Kurt Busch’s case, he may very well have taken a huge stepping away from the stressful and toxic relationships and might well be on the cusp of a renaissance in his career. I know, I know, he’s third in the points, but when Chase time comes he had better be more than calm, he will have to be laser beam focused.

Take a look at his brother Kyle. Truly one, if not the best, wheelmen in the business. He got married, had a child and is ripping the tracks up no matter where they are. Kurt has always seemed a little more unpredictable, but this marriage may be the golden turning point for him.

I’ve never been married and maybe never will, my friends tell me that it will calm me down, make me more focused and I could even live longer. I’m afraid to hold my breath.

No stranger to danger, Polo can be violent, Van Metre has a handle on competition.

No stranger to danger, Polo can be violent, Van Metre has a handle on competition.

In Kurt Busch’s case, he seems to have hit the motherlode, at least in terms of pairing with a woman with exemplary life breeding. His fiancé, Ashley Van Metre, is accomplished in the art of moving in high cotton circles. Did I mention she’s an accomplished Polo player and a Ralph Lauren model? Polo is most definitely for the rich, but at least it’s highly competitive and she will have some understanding of the mindset he has.

She almost certainly has an entire dossier on Kurt Busch’s life, courtesy of the forward thinking family she has. They do, afterall put on on the Van Metre Cup. They don’t shoot from the hip, they perform their due diligence. In fact, she’s already had a calming effect on him as one can tell when he’s interviewed.

Marriage can go two ways, to Heaven or to Hell according to virtually every couple I’ve spoken to regarding the subject. Racing drivers don’t live in-between too often. They are either full gas or full brake, rarely do they sit around and contemplate life.

With Kurt, he’s seemed to have had a troubled soul for most of his adult life, but they tell me, and I did call a marriage therapist before writing this little piece, that marrying the right person is the single most defining thing a person can do.

Personally I think winning the Sprint Cup Championship is, but what do I, a confirmed bachelor know?

Her family is filthy rich. Check box one as she’s no gold digger, her gang has much more money than Busch. Check box two, she herself is an inveterate competitor and has meshed into his life without trouble. Check box three, her family knows who Kurt Busch is. You don’t retain that kind of wealth by letting you’re daughter marry down, so I would expect he has passed the Van Metre meter. Check box four, she’s drop dead, stop the trains from running gorgeous.

I fully expect that her intellect, lack of financial incentive and her understanding of finance, high brow upbringing and astonishing good looks will keep Busch in a very safe place in his mind.

The Chase is coming, Busch is in final talks to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing and he’s marrying someone every bit his equal.

Life is good at the Kurt Busch camp and good for them, everyone deserves a chance to experience a long lasting and meaningful relationship.

Maybe I do have a chance, that girl at the Steak n’ Shake drive thru is awfully friendly to me.

Extra fries, maybe I have a chance.

NASCAR Competition Grows Despite the Uneducated Criticisms

SHR has shown that it's a true player in the NASCAR game. The competition is better now than at any other time in sport's history.

SHR has shown that it’s a true player in the NASCAR game. The competition is better now than at any other time in sport’s history.

American racing, both NASCAR and IndyCar may very well be the best on the planet right now. NASCAR anyone in the top 20 have a shot at winning and, so far, in 15 races there have been 10 different winners. In IndyCar, there have ben 8 race winners in 11 races.

(I say 15 due to the fact that the Quicken Loans 400 has been rain delayed more than an outdoor electrician’s convention in South Florida during a storm. It has now been called giving Kurt Busch his second win of the year.)

Compare this to Formula One with 3 winners in 7 races, which may seem competitive but is really among two teams, Ferrari and Mercedes. 2015 will be a major Mercedes rout. Ferrari won’t catch up this year. Scratch the word competitive from F1 this year.

What this means is that, despite the ludicrous cries of the villagers, NASCAR is more competitive than it’s ever been. It is poised to become even more competitive at Kentucky where more rules changes, so it’s being touted, come into effect. Namely less down-force.

When you put more control back into the drivers hands you naturally discover who can drive a racing car at this high level. So far, they seem to be doing a great job of mixing it up just fine. On the other hand, the drivers want more.

According to Carl Edwards, a long-time proponent of less down-force: “I’d be in favor of anything that makes the cars able to race around each other and to put more of the speed into the drivers hands,” Edwards said. “I know NASCAR is all for the same thing. Everybody wants this thing to be the best possible show for the fans and I don’t think NASCAR is scared to make changes. 

Carl Edwards has long been a proponent of removing downforce on the Cup cars to [put more control in the drivers hands.

Carl Edwards has long been a proponent of removing downforce on the Cup cars to [put more control in the drivers hands.

“I think it’s really cool that they’ve been talking with the drivers more, they’ve been more involved with it and without knowing really the details, I think we’re heading in the right direction. I have a sense that there will be some neat things coming.”

What more do the NASCAR fans want? The cars leaping through fiery hoops on the straights? Humpy wheeler would surely approve, but anything other than bringing the cars back down to the wheelman’s control is not in NASCAR’s long-term interest.

The more competitive the better. NASCAR needs to stand out among the myriad of leisure decisions American sports fans have at their disposal. So far, the general press has been kind to the sport giving it it’s due.

The one thing that has everyone nervous at the moment is NASCAR floating another balloon revealing the possibility of tailoring the aerodynamics to each individual racing track. One only hopes that they give the lower down-force option a solid chance.

Rushing something that has an obvious and definite complexity to it is tantamount to the recent legislative shenanigans of our esteemed Congress.

I sincerely hope that NASCAR implements the changes at Kentucky, takes stock over the next few races on different style tracks and then makes a decision on tailored aerodynamics.

The last thing we want to see is a repeat of IndyCar’s first few races with Frankenstein add-ons. This is NASCAR and it should remain as simple as possible.

That is what breeds competition, that’s what shows whose got what.

NASCAR, Kurt Busch and Shrunken Heads

It's OK...I'm all better now.

It’s OK…I’m all better now.

If ever a racing driver in history deserved inclusion in the rare but fabled “Lazarus Syndrome” files, it would be Kurt Busch. He’s had more dead careers resurrected than Fatty Arbuckle.

I will be the first to admit that I was wrong as to how the sponsors and NASCAR would treat him after his very public wrangling’s with Patricia Driscoll. You won’t hear me admit that I’m wrong very often. But when I am, I am.

Busch not only was brought back into the NASCAR fold, under considerable public pressure I might add, but he has put himself right back into the limelight as a contender week in and week out. He will win a race, or more likely several, as the 2015 Sprint Cup season rolls along.

He may not have been a favorite for Tony Stewart or his teammates, but Gene Haas didn’t need their permission to place him in the team. How many zeros are behind a number are in direct proportion as to how well an idea or endeavor is received. Right Gene Haas looks like a genius.

Busch has managed to overcome a great deal of adversity, most of it self inflicted, to place himself in the position of being very self-controlled and still aggressive on the track. I’m sure there is shrunken head tacked to a wall with a medical moniker attached to it in a Psychiatrist office somewhere.

The question that will remain for quite some time is can he keep it up? It surely hasn’t escaped anyone who is kind enough to read this opinion is that when he’s interviewed or challenged in any way his responses are very deliberate and almost mechanical. That’s not a bad thing; perhaps it represents the first steps in the ‘Road to Recovery’.

Samantha Busch could probably modify any man's behavior.

Samantha Busch could probably modify any man’s behavior.

I would venture to say, and this is just an opinion, that he is under psychiatric or psychological care on a regular basis that includes behavior modification. Let’s face it, after a certain point in our lives, people do not have fundamental personality changes but behavior modification is a legitimate course of action to those who have detrimental behaviors. Busch would qualify on that one.

Speaking today with a close associate, Bill Marlowe, the subject of Kyle Busch came up as it relates to his brother. It’s obvious that Kyle’s behavior and general mental attitude has taken a major step toward the good. Perhaps, as Bill pointed out, there is a reason.

It is probably no accident that Kyle’s behavior is in no small part due to the fact that his wife has a Masters Degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. What is that? Here’s the short answer: “Industrial organizational psychology is the branch of psychology that applies psychological theories and principles to organizations. Often referred to as I-O psychology, this field focuses on increasing workplace productivity and related issues such as the physical and mental well being of employees.”

I would think that if the Busch’s have any familial regard for one another then Kyle’s wife may have played a substantial role in convincing NASCAR to let psychological intervention play into brother-in-law Kurt’s remediation back into the field.

Whatever the case it certainly seems to be working on all fronts. Kurt is giving Kevin Harvick a run for his money, SHR seems to have a shot of at least two cars making the Chase and I have actually admitted I was wrong about Kurt having a career left in motorsports.

I suppose all is right with the world.

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.

 

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.

 

NASCAR: Daytona 500 and Bandicoots On Acid

A jubilant Joey Logano celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

A jubilant Joey Logano celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

This past Sunday the 57th Daytona 500 was held and Joey Logano can finally be comfortable with the “Sliced Bread” moniker given him several years ago.

It was a strong indication that Penske Racing is going to be a factor in 2015 and is the default ‘Factory’ team for Ford.

The weeks leading up to the storied event, however, weren’t so kind to NASCAR.

A change in the qualifying was in order and NASCAR certainly changed it, to the chagrin and openly critical display of the drivers.

To NASCAR’s credit something had to be done. Three hours to qualify for a race is simply too long and takes up far too much valuable broadcast air time leaving a potentially new audience who might tune in to the marathon with a feeling of boredom.

“If qualifying is this boring how much more interesting could the race be” was the comment that I heard most. The problem was that NASCAR simply isn’t Formula One and can’t use a knockout style format with the same level of execution, there are simply too many cars and too many desperate drivers to not have carnage. Carnage they had.

Kyle Busch did not walk away from this crash.

Kyle Busch did not walk away from this crash.

As posted in a previous article our technical expert, Bill Marlowe, suggested the following format, which is worth repeating:

(1) Have all 48-50 cars line up diagonally on pit road.

(2) Each qualifying group would consist of no more than 8-10 cars

(3) In a blind draw, the first 10 cars are selected 5, maybe 8 minutes before they run. This ultimately gives a total of about 5-6 groups.

(4) In a second tandem blind draw, each car selected is given its starting position from pit road.

(5) The 1st ten cars have 5 minutes to line up on pit road.

(6) When the signal is given to go, group 1 has 5 minutes to accelerate, get up to speed and set a time.

(7) While the 1st group is out the blind draw process repeats itself.

(8) While the 1st group is on its cool down lap and coming to pit lane the 2nd group is already being released.

This format would take approximately one hour allowing for any engine failures, crashes or debris on track stoppages.

"The Lunatics Are in the Hall"- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

“The Lunatics Are in the Hall”- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

Let’s hope that something is changed for Talladega.

On Saturday Kyle Busch, during the Xfinity race, exited the racing surface and laterally contacted an inside retaining wall that did not have the advantage of a safer barrier. He broke his left leg and his ankle. He’s fortunate not to have lost his life.

You have to believe that the only reason there wasn’t a safer barrier in place is that NASCAR has become so large in its bureaucracy that by committee it couldn’t have foreseen such an accident. That’s what happens when delegating authority too quickly or by committee is employed. After all, the wall was certainly in place for the next day.

How hard was that? Not as hard as Busch’s crash.

Then comes the story that had everyone from TMZ to Al-Jazeera writing about it. Kurt Busch’s indefinite suspension from NASCAR due to a restraining order obtained from his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll.

It’s no secret that Kurt Busch has an anger problem. It’s no secret that NASCAR really has no warm and fuzzy feelings for the elder Busch. It’s no secret that by all outward appearances, both he and Driscoll are crazier than a pair of Bandicoot’s on acid.

However, it seems that NASCAR does, from time to time, exact revenge on it’s detractors or troublemakers. Travis Kvapil really screwed up. He plead guilty of domestic abuse and was given probation and no disciplinary punishment handed down by NASCAR.

Again, NASCAR may have had every reason, and they certainly have the right, to kick Busch to the curb.

It does seem, however, on the surface, to be a bit hypocritical. Maybe yes, maybe no. No one can argue that domestic abuse is both unacceptable and appalling, but how often is it used for revenge? Often enough.

How easy is it to manipulate the courts? Damned easy many times.

Having been a witness in a Florida Capital Case I can tell you that what you hear in a courtroom is not necessarily what happened. Truth becomes an abstract. I watched a very guilty person walk away.

But this is NASCAR and not a courtroom. They are a private, not a public company.

They have stabilized, to a large degree, their loss of viewership. Perhaps not the actual attendees to the race, they may never return, but NASCAR and it’s cadre’ of high paid lawyers weren’t going to take the chance that Kurt Busch could, and he certainly could have, won the Daytona 500 only to be charged with a crime later on.

Ms. Driscoll has exacted her pound of flesh, for now, NASCAR has saved face in the American public’s eyes and there is now a safer barrier where there should have been one all along.

The Daytona 500 went off without a hitch and perhaps NASCAR has listened to the suggestions of others erudite in technical matters regarding qualifying on large tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.

Oh, and Joy Logano won his first Daytona 500 with authority.

Changes: Personal And Professional Herald 2015 Season

Tony Stewart had a dismal 2014 season and afterward had a fifth surgery on the broken leg he suffered in 2013. Can he come back from adversity to have a good 2015 season?

Tony Stewart had a dismal 2014 season and afterward had a fifth surgery on the broken leg he suffered in 2013. Can he come back from adversity to have a good 2015 season?

As the short NASCAR Sprint Cup plows forward toward February, it’s not unusual for folks to speculate on what might happen in the coming season or, in some cases, before.

After all, many changes have taken place and others are anticipated. Make no mistake they will have their effect. The question is, in each instance, what will that be?

Several changes are technological and competitive in nature and some are personal. But they all pique our interest and, indeed, could have a bearing on what we see in 2015.

The obvious question is how will the rule changes for 2015 affect racing? If we go by the recent Goodyear tire testing at Charlotte, the answer is: We don’t know yet.

Some drivers felt there was little change in the feel and handling of the cars from 2014. Others said they noticed the cars were “more free,” indicating a loss of downforce.

Actually, no one will get a very good sense of what all the rule changes mean until they get some time on the track – and in actual competition.

Once that happens some teams will find the changes very beneficial while others will struggle, at least for a while. That’s the way it’s always been.

My prediction? Most of the rule changes, not all, are neither as dramatic nor as plentiful as they have been in the past. I think the issues they may create are going to be relatively small.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a terrific 2014 season with four victories, including the Daytona 500, and an eighth-place in the final point standings.

Kurt Busch is currently being investigated for an assault on his ex-girlfriend. This situation builds pressure because the results may determine the fate of his career.

Kurt Busch is currently being investigated for an assault on his ex-girlfriend. This situation builds pressure because the results may determine the fate of his career.

He was also named the Most Popular Driver, again, and was the winner of the prestigious National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contributions to racing.

He never had an inkling he would receive such an award.

However, Earnhardt Jr.’s on-track achievements were compiled under the direction of crew chief Steve Letarte. Letarte will not be back. He’s become a member of the NBA race broadcast crew.

Letarte’s replacement is Greg Ives. A former engineer for Jimmie Johnson, last season Ives was at Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports where he guided Chase Elliott to the Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) Series championship.

His pedigree sounds pretty darn good to me. And his familiarity with Hendrick Motorsports bodes well.

But you know how it works with a driver and a new crew chief. Nothing matters until they become good buddies and post good numbers.

Trust me, the “Junior Nation” will be watching.

Tony Stewart’s 2014 season was a black hole. Let’s put aside the tragic incident in New York – which Stewart will never forget.

Instead, there are questions about his health. Stewart suffered a broken leg in a 2013 Sprint Car accident and to see him limp around the garage area told us he was not fully recovered.

Stewart underwent a fifth operation, called routine, just weeks after the 2014 season ended.

Well, most likely because of the tragedy in New York and lingering physical shortcomings, in 2014 Stewart had the worst season of his career. He failed to win a race for the first time in 15 years.

Stewart Haas Racing is behind its driver and says he will be ready for 2015.

Really? He’s 43 years old and coming off an emotionally draining season and a fifth surgery.

That’s a lot to overcome. And it’s fair to say many will watch to see if Stewart can do it.

Let’s get even more personal.

Police are still investigating the charges that Kurt Busch assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 26 in Dover. A judge will decide on Dec. 16 if a restraining order should be issued against him.

It seems likely Busch will know his fate before the Daytona 500. NASCAR Chairman Brian France has stated no sanctions will be taken until police complete their investigation.

So Busch’s career is, in fact, in limbo. That has to be a nerve-wracking situation.

To tell the truth, it always is when your fate is in someone else’s hands.

More to come.

 

 

 

 

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