NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

Joey Logano Must Gamble for NASCAR Playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR's playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR’s playoffs

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Racing Ford, is down to his final two racetrack spins of the regular season.  And the odds may be more stacked against him making the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs than your winning the latest Powerball drawing.

Logano’s struggle to qualify for the playoffs is arguably the greatest shock of the NASCAR season, given that Logano made it all the way to the final round of Championship 4 drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014 and 2016.

Even though Logano won at Richmond Raceway in April, that victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

Mathematically eliminated in terms of points, Logano is in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs with only a return to Richmond and Darlington Raceway left in the regular season.

Two weeks ago, Logano confessed at Michigan International Speedway to being desperate, but felt the final stretch of regular-season tracks was a good fit for his driving style.

Yet, at Bristol where he has won twice previously, Logano wrestled his way to a 13th place finish in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, lacking corner entry stability and having to rebound from being a lap-down by utilizing the free-pass.

Since the Richmond penalty was announced, which included a loss of team points and crew chief suspension for two races, the momentum has been sucked out of the #22 team.  In his last 14 NASCAR Cup races, Logano has led only 7 laps.

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Back in February, Logano was on top of the world, as he, crew chief Todd Gordon, and sponsor Shell signed contract extensions running through 2023, delivering the team stability that Roger Penske craves.

Logano, saying it was a day he would never forget, proclaimed, “When a seven-year deal is thrown in front of you, obviously you jump on that opportunity to go out there and win championships together.”

So, will Logano be able to cash in on victory lane in either of the two remaining regular season races?

Richmond is the better bet of the two tracks, given Logano has won there twice (including the “encumbered” April win).  His average finish of 8.9 over last 10 races is 2nd among active drivers.

Darlington, with its odd egg-shaped design and legend as the “track too tough to tame”, is a definite shortcoming in Logano’s repertoire.  His average finish of 18.4 is 17th best among active drivers, including just two top-5’s in eight starts.

Logano maintains optimism, asserting “Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s ok.  That’s where you find out what you’re made of, so I’m all right with that.”

Logano is spot-on.  The #22 team has had its back against the wall before and Team JL has delivered.

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

However, right now, the Penske Fords just haven’t been fast enough and appear off.

Penske’s two teams of Logano and Keselowski can crank a fast lap time in practice and qualifying, but they’re just not drivable in race conditions, either due to a shortfall of aero downforce or mechanical grip in race conditions.

Luck, of course, plays a big factor, and a shrewd pit call by master crew chief Todd Gordon could rescue the day at either track.  But, time is now the enemy, and this perplexing season may leave Team JL with mixed emotions given its early season success, followed by its recent struggles.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Logano make the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano


Keselowski Seeks To Avoid Another ‘Flop’ In 2014

Brad Keselowski didn’t have a very successful 2013 season as he failed to make the Chase. However, he thinks he can return to form in 2014.

Daytona Beach, FL-Brad Keselowski was a huge hit in 2012 but in 2013, well, he was a flop.

Maybe “flop” is too harsh a word but the fact is Keselowski, who drives Fords for Penske Racing, won the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship only to finish 14h in points last year – which means he was not one of the 13 drivers admitted into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Reckon Keselowski would call that a flop.

“It definitely wasn’t good, but that was last year,” said Keselowski, who won only one race and finished 16 times among the top 10 in 2013.  “Much like what I did in 2012 didn’t count for much in 2013, and what you do in 2013 doesn’t count for much for 2014.  You have to reset.”

Speaking of “reset,” NASCAR has done plenty of that for 2014. It includes new qualifying and rules structures  – not to mention an altered Chase, which, among many other things, will consist of 16 drivers.

“I think almost every one of the changes benefits my team as a whole and is part of the reason for my optimism,” Keselowski said. “Well, maybe with the exception of the added spoiler to the back of the car.  That’s probably the only change of anything that’s been done, and there have been a lot of them, that I didn’t like.

Keselowski won the 2012 NASCAR championship in only his second year with Penske Racing. He won five races that season, the most of his career.

“I think if you want an explanation as to how I think we’d be here for a long time, but I think all the changes are beneficial for us.  The Chase changes, I think, fit my driving style the best.

“The qualifying changes definitely fit me very well, so I think all of them are really positive for our team.”

Keselowski admits that 2013 started out well enough, but some NASCAR-enforced alterations to his Ford helped create a competitive downturn.

“The new rear suspension package that we came out with at Texas, getting that taken away from us was big, and then everyone else developed some packages that we, quite frankly, weren’t allowed to do,” Keselowski said. “That put us behind speed-wise and speed is kind of the backbone of this sport.

“And then we missed the ball on some execution, whether that was speeding down pit road or parts that fell off the car or pit stops.  So we kind of hit the perfect storm over the summer and that’s all it took without getting a race win early in the season when we were very capable of doing so.”

“I think once we hit the Chase period and re-developed our cars I thought we were really strong.  Again, we ran into some of the same issues, but on a much smaller basis.”

Keselowski first captured everyone’s attention with his surprise victory at Talladega in James Finch’s underfinanced Chevrolet in 2009. That helped the Rochester Hills, Mich., native land a ride with Penske the following year.

One trait that has galvanized Keselowski is his willingness to speak his mind. He’s never been timid – on the track or off. A driver who tweets during a race and causes NASCAR to rule against the practice, and monitor Twitter, is no wallflower by any means.

It’s been suggested NASCAR has tried to put a muzzle on Keselowski, so to speak, but the driver, who was an excellent ambassador for the sport last year, doesn’t agree –well, somewhat.

“I don’t have a muzzle on my face right now, but maybe I should have,” said Keselowski, who has been fined many times by NASCAR. “I’m in an increasingly difficult position as a champion of this sport to try to convey the very strong situation and the health of this sport, which, although it could always be better, is not terrible.

“I think quite a few back channels have opened up within NASCAR over the last six to eight months that have given me the ability to not have to go to the media to get something done.

“That fits my personal and professional agenda, and out of respect for that I think it maybe creates a situation where what might look like a muzzle to you or to the outside is perhaps more a moment of opportunity I just don’t want to piss away.

“Either that or it’s just being so damn annoying that people start listening to you – one of the two.”

It’s obvious Keselowski doesn’t want to, uh, “piss away” his chances in 2014.

“I felt we had a really strong run a lot of times and won Charlotte, and were really strong and competitive at Texas and Homestead and Chicago,” he said. “But not quite enough to be where we want.

“We made a lot of changes in that regard internally to try to clean up those misgivings, but I don’t think we’re very far off.  I thought when we ended 2013 that we ended in a very similar fashion that we ended 2011, which set us up for a strong title run in 2012.

“So I’m carrying that optimism into this year.”




Busch’s Talent Should Land Him A Ride, But Will It Be Enough?


Kurt Busch has had a successful NASCAR career but it has also been highlighted by ill behavior and displays of anger. His tenure with Penske Racing has come to an end and the question now is, will his talent be enough to land him a competitive ride, or will his reputation harm his future?

Much has been said and written about Kurt Busch’s future, which, competitively, has been rumored to be with Richard Petty Motorsports or perhaps elsewhere.

It appears this is a pivotal career point for Busch. He has clearly displayed his talent, but, at the same time, he has shown a penchant for anger and boorish behavior.

So it appears the question is, will his talent override his flaws and gain him yet another opportunity with a quality team, or will his somewhat unsavory reputation as an individual toss him to a lower level?

Right now, your guess is as good as mine.

But I offer some background and thoughts:

When it comes to skill behind the wheel, Busch is a terrific stock car driver.

I don’t see how that can be argued. He started racing when he was 14 years old and he’s been winning ever since.

His list of accomplishments as a youngster is impressive, to say the least. To name a few, he won the Nevada State Dwarf Car championship in 1995, the Hobby Stock Car title at Las Vegas Speedway Park in 1996, and, after earning seven wins in two years on the circuit, he became the youngest driver to win NASCAR Southwest Series championship. He was just 21 years old.

He was the runnerup for the 2000 NASCAR Camping World Truck championship, in which he won four races and was named the rookie of the year.

It was also in 2000 that Busch got his break in Sprint Cup competition, entering seven races for team owner Jack Roush, a man known for his ability to cultivate young talent.

It didn’t take long for Busch to blossom. In 2002, his third season with Roush, the Las Vegas native won four races. He would win 10 more with Roush over the next four seasons.

His crowning achievement came in 2004 – only his fourth full season at NASCAR’s highest level – when he won the Sprint Cup championship.

By this time we had all seen the dark side of Busch’s personality, revealed by multiple physical and verbal confrontations with other drivers, the media and others – and, at times, a very condescending attitude toward those around him.

I think most of us felt that along with his abundance of talent Busch also had a short fuse.

So what? Many of the greatest drivers in NASCAR’s history have been men who have been known to respond harshly to perceived injustice or imperfection.

However it was almost constant with Busch, at least it seemed that way to some, and it came to a head just one year after his championship.

In a well-chronicled incident in Phoenix, Busch, stopped by deputies in Maricopa County near the track for traffic violations, engaged in a pugilistic exchange of words and some antagonistic name-calling

All of which was duly and widely reported and proved to be the last straw for the Roush organization.

Busch was not entered in the final two races of the season. Essentially, he was dismissed.

“We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists,” said Roush President Geoff Smith.

It didn’t take long for Busch to hook up with another high-level team as he joined Penske Racing in 2006.

The six years he has spent with Penske have not been as productive as those with Roush. Still, Busch has won in each season.

This year, even though he won twice, it appeared Busch was simply unsatisfied with the team’s performance.

If we consider his repeated and widely-reported tirades over the radio, some laced with profanity and others harshly critical of team members, that would certainly seem to be the case.

Often Busch expressed his dissatisfaction in the harshest, even crudest, means possible.

It all came to a head with his profane tirade toward television pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch not long after Busch had fallen out of the Homestead race early.

It was captured on YouTube, which is all it took for the word to see everything.

Penske and Busch thus parted by “mutual agreement.”

Busch turned to the media to make his case. He admitted he had done things wrong, as far as his conduct, and was receiving professional help.

He also said he still had a lot to offer any team.

He’s right.

But will it be enough?

The Petty team’s interest in him as a replacement for A.J. Allmendinger (who had his best season in 2011) is evident.

It wants to keep its sponsor, Best Buy, which it landed just before the 2011 campaign began. Makes sense, given that in these difficult economic times financial backing is difficult to find.

RPM no doubt thinks that it can increase its chances to keep its supporter by offering up a winning, championship driver who is assured a start in every Sprint Cup race in 2012.

That may well be true.

But then, how does the team – and the sponsor – judge Busch the man and his past?

I know full well that RPM is not the family-run operation out of Level Cross, N.C., it once was. It is now a much different corporate entity that does not necessarily reflect the values of what was once Petty Enterprises.

There was a time when the name Petty, so very conscious of the its image and that of its long-standing, legendary driver, did all it could not be associated with anything negative – including a controversial personality, professional confrontations or even a beer sponsorship.

I seriously doubt Busch would ever be considered for employment.

But that was then. This is now.

And, curiously, wonder what the Roush organization, which works in tandem with RPM in technology, would think of Busch in the mix?

In the end the matter is simple, really.

Busch’s talent and record are going to land him a ride – be it with RPM or elsewhere. I really don’t think there is much doubt about that.

But the question is this: Will he become a changed man? Will he be the cooperative, open and even charming man he can be and whom we’ve seen often in the past?

If he does, his future would seem assured.

If not, what happens next, whatever it might be, could be his very last chance.


Numbers Tell Us The Competition Ain’t Bad, For Now

As the 2011 season heads into Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the Samsung Mobile 500 tonight it is interesting to note how, competition-wise, the preceding six races have provided excellent storylines.

This is NASCAR’s opinion, you understand, not mine – but I must say that I agree with it.

“Storylines” might be the wrong word here. Let’s just say that what has transpired so far are simply facts that deserve our attention.

Why, you might ask. It’s because some of what we might have expected so far this season has not happened – and some of what we did not, in many ways, has.

I use as evidence of all this information provided by NASCAR; information that puts its competition in a good light. But when it comes to competition, the sanctioning body is all about promoting the quality therein whenever possible – which is its job, after all.

The facts and figures are accurate. They are not manipulated. They are what they are, and, to be honest, they are intriguing.

We’re told that two of last year’s top winners, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, remain winless going into Texas. I’m not sure about you, but I’m one of those who thought either one of them would have been victorious by now. Heck, if nothing else, they were the hands-down favorites at Martinsville.

And you knew that, didn’t you?

Interestingly, lead-change records have fallen in three of the six Sprint Cup races so far, at Daytona, Phoenix and Martinsville.

There has been, NASCAR tells us, an average of 31.5 lead changes per race, the most after six events in series history.

Now I would be one of the first to say this is nothing but the result of racing circumstances. But I would quickly add that races that have produced record lead changes at such a high average are, if not great, certainly compelling.

After all, which race is better – one in which several drivers swap the lead or one in which a driver dominates to the point of boredom? I think you know.

NASCAR tells us that, through six races, there has been an average of 13 leaders per race, the most in series history.

Again I would say this is the result of circumstances. But I would also say that, as far as fan and media appeal, it beats the hell out of anything else.

We know that prior to Kevin Harvick’s win at Martinsville, his second in a row, there were five different winners in the first five races of the season. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2005.

Once more, it’s all about circumstances.

But then, given what has happened so far, consider this: You tell me, if you like real competition, what is more appealing – that one or two drivers dominate or that several win – and in some cases we are ultimately greatly surprised when they do?

Case in point: Face it, when Trevor Bayne and Wood Brothers Racing won the Daytona 500 was that not a big, pleasant surprise that ultimately captured national attention?

Headed into Texas, seven different teams occupied the top seven positions in the point standings. They were Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hey, I like it. To me it’s a more intriguing scenario than oh, say, for Roush to have four teams among the top seven and Hendrick the other three – unless you’re a big fan of either team, or both.

Finally, NASCAR pointed out that the top four drivers in the point standings all run different manufacturers.

If I had to guess, the sanctioning body revels in this statistic more than any other. It’s proof, somewhat, that its ongoing efforts to create a level playing field for all its participating manufacturers are paying off – for now, anyway.

I know all of this is NASCAR tooting its own horn. But why not? There have been seasons in the past when it didn’t have a horn to toot.

Tooting aside, the numbers do tell us the competition in NASCAR, so far, ain’t been bad at all.

Starting at Texas tonight, we’ll see if stays the same, gets better or gets worse.


Tampering With Qualifying Dates Nothing New In NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – There was a lot of buzz about today’s qualifying for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500.
For the first time at Martinsville Speedway, time trials will take place on a Saturday, starting today at 12:10 p.m ET, just before the start of the Camping World Truck Series race. That’s what’s caused the buzz.

Not that it was entirely unexpected. Earlier we learned that several races held this year at International Speedway Corp. tracks, and others, would have qualifying shifted to a Saturday.
Martinsville is the first, so naturally the revised schedule got a lot of scrutiny, which fostered several opinions.

On Friday, the Sprint Cup teams completed two 90-minute practice sessions. That was their schedule for the day.
Today, they will be at the track to run just two qualifying laps. That’s it. And the truck race will follow.
Now, the idea is that fans can get more bang for the buck with Sprint Cup qualifying and a truck race held on the same day.

And since that day is Saturday, there’s likely to be more fans in attendance.
“I’m all about what’s best for the show,” said Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick. “If it’s best for the show for us to have qualifying on a Saturday, then that’s what we need to do.”

Other drivers are not so lavish with their praise. Their contention is that the schedule is awkward and a burden.
“We just have to cram everything together,” said Penske Racing driver Kurt Busch on Friday. “That includes race trim and qualifying trim. I would expect lap totals to be close to 250 and that’s half a race.

“Tomorrow it’s just going to be two laps and that’s where a driver has to step up and show what he can do for his team and make sure he gets the best out of his car.”
Busch, however, agrees that if the new schedule is best for the fans, then that’s as it should be.

Ryan Newman, who drives for Stewart-Haas, said: “I just don’t want to come here for a day and just qualify.
“Coming here, I have the opportunity to go back and forth so coming up tomorrow for two laps is not the most planned, I guess you could say, use of everyone’s time.

“I’m not mad about it but I don’t see that it makes entire sense right now.”
Many observed that the new schedule mirrors that of “impound” races, of which, this year, there remain only a few.
How Saturday qualifying holds up at Martinsville and elsewhere remains to be seen.
But, as I’ve said many times before, what happens in NASCAR today has happened in the past – and that includes fooling around with Sprint Cup qualifying dates.

You might find some of this hard to believe, but it’s true.
For many years, Martinsville staged not one, not two, but three days of qualifying.
The first round was held on Thursday and, get this, only 10 cars were permitted into the field. On Friday a second round usually increased the field to 30 cars. Then a third round, on Saturday, would complete the starting lineup of, usually, 36 cars.
Martinsville wasn’t the only track that adopted this quirky system. North Wilkesboro did, too.

It was the same process – qualifying for the top 10 on Thursday, followed by a second round and then, sometimes, a third.
The reasoning behind this didn’t have as much to do with the fans as it did the media.
Martinsville President Clay Earles and Enoch Staley, the boss at North Wilkesboro, both reasoned that if they had three days of qualifying, that could provide them with more newspaper coverage.

Without the Internet and only minimal television coverage, if any, newspapers were the primary tools of race track publicity.
So the more time reporters had to spend at a track to gather the news, the better it was for the tracks – at least that is what Earles and Staley believed. Common sense dictated three days of coverage was better than two.

But when it came to spending an extra day at a track, the media and competitors didn’t see where there was any common sense involved.
If one extra day seemed nonsensical, how about two?
For years Charlotte Motor Speedway held qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 on Wednesday – and the race wasn’t scheduled until Sunday.

That meant competitors spent five days at the speedway. On some days there wasn’t much to do. There was plenty of grousing.
Best we could figure, Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Charlotte and other tracks – which won’t hold qualifying on Saturday – wanted to have something as close to a Daytona Speedweeks as he could get.
It evolved that while CMS still held qualifying on Wednesday, there was no NASCAR activity on Friday.

The late Dick Beaty, then the Winston Cup Director, told me, “If we’re gonna have to be here Wednesday, we’re gonna take a day off.”
Today, of course, qualifying at CMS is on Thursday. Martinsville dropped its three-day policy years ago.
But it has something new now for the fans – that will, ultimately, determine if it is right or wrong.

Layoffs, Sadly, Still A Part Of NASCAR

Ran into an old friend the other day, Scott Robinson, who has been part of NASCAR as a crewman and shop official for well over 20 years. Ol’ Scott doesn’t look like he’s aged a day.

But that might change soon. When I asked him how things were going, he paused and then said: “Pretty good right now. But who knows a couple of days from now?”

Robinson was referring to today’s precarious employment situation for many NASCAR team members. Although I told him it didn’t seem likely to me, he maintained he could be a victim to the ongoing layoffs.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in this sport,” he said. “When the time comes they don’t think about that.”

Layoffs have been a part of NASCAR for two years now and came about as the economy tanked. When that happened, corporations had to tighten their budgets which meant, of course, layoffs of their own.

It also meant many of them that spent good sponsorship money in NASCAR had to pull the plug on it – or at least reduce it significantly. One result is that even several of the top-tier teams have had to negotiate less expensive deals with two, three or even four financial supporters to make it through the 36-race season.

Other teams have had it more difficult. Some have lessened their participation in NASCAR while others have pulled out altogether.

When Robinson and I met, it had already been announced that Penske Racing had laid off 50 people earlier in the week with more to come.

The prime reason is that Penske has yet to find sponsorship for Sam Hornish, Jr., whose NASCAR career might be derailed if the money can’t be found.

Penske will field three Sprint Cup teams in 2011 with drivers Kurt Busch, Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski. Hornish Jr. will compete in the Daytona 500 and if he can’t proceed, Penske will enter him in the Indianapolis 500.

It had also been announced that Richard Petty Motorsports had laid off 75 employees. RPM itself might have ceased to exist had not new capital been infused by Petty and a couple of investment firms.

RPM, though, will operate with two cars next year instead of four. When a reduction in an organization’s number of teams occurs it means jobs disappear. Some employees are no longer needed – hence, they’re gone.

The RPM team reduction also has had an effect elsewhere, namely, Roush Fenway Racing.

Roush supplied cars and more to RPM in 2010. Since there will be only two to be serviced in 2011, Roush became overstaffed and as many as 60 people were let go.

This, I think, is a good example of the “trickle down” effect, something Robinson pointed out.

“People sometimes don’t understand how all of this affects the sport,” he said. “When a team doesn’t have the money and starts letting people go it reaches well beyond that. It hits a lot of folks working in the sport, even the people who sell souvenirs.”

There’s been plenty of evidence of that, given the speedways have struggled to sell tickets, advertising has dried up, souvenir sales aren’t what they were and fans have to, first, decide if they want to spend money to attend a race and, second, how much they’ll spend once they do.

As said, when it comes to layoffs they are across the board – in NASCAR, corporate America and businesses large and small.

We’ve been told that the economy is rebounding. But the process has been slow – very slow, obviously. People are still losing their jobs.

So it is in NASCAR, unfortunately.

It’s very likely Scott Robinson isn’t the only one taking a look over his shoulder now and then.

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