NASCAR: Doubtful Charter Franchise Will Entice New Owners

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR's premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR’s premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

Auto racing is an unforgiving passion: If you don’t perform well on the track, you won’t survive over time. Resources are not limitless. It’s an essential lesson in pay for performance and free enterprise at its finest.

Race teams need to have secure marketing partners to fund their operations, and race purse winnings to stay afloat. If a team shutters its race shop, there is not much left to sell to somebody else, given the tailored fabrication equipment, rule-dependent car templates, and the reliance on human talent that heads for the exit. In racing, the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one.

Now, NASCAR wants to reinvent that dynamic by establishing what is being referred to as a franchising “charter system”. For an upfront license fee (projected to be several million dollars per full-time car), entitled teams would be guaranteed a spot in each race. As a result, teams unable to secure a charter would be discouraged from participating, given that only a few spots in the show would be earned purely based on qualifying day performance.

Chartered teams also would have a superior ability to sell sponsorship and secure funding. As a result, many see this as a boon for current owners by ensuring they have equity in their race organizations, thereby providing a “guaranteed residual”, or a pay-to-play fee, for anybody to enter the sport.

This development is perplexing, given that a succession planning void looms over the next generation of trailblazers willing to invest capital in NASCAR’s future. At some point, NASCAR will need to replenish the current super team owners at its top Sprint Cup level (i.e., Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Chip Ganassi, and Joe Gibbs), given these long-time principals have an average age of 70 years.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can't be ignored.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can’t be ignored.

Historically, the auto racing business has been about performance. Better performing teams get more attractive sponsors. Sponsors bring money to pay big-time drivers. Big-time drivers win races and bring purse money to the team. And the virtuous cycle continues. Pay for performance, clean and simple. Strong performing teams survive, and weak ones fade to the sideline. No different than other small businesses.

Throughout my career, I’ve designed and reviewed executive employment agreements. Nowadays, shareholders are clamoring for executives to be paid for their performance on the street. That said, golden parachute payout protections still persist, ensuring that an executive can realize lucrative severance benefits regardless of performance.

Somehow, the new charter license fee strikes me as having the same unfavored aspect, providing a floor level of profit, in spite of whether the team’s performance justifies that value.

Purportedly, NASCAR is trying to get this deal done prior to the start of its season at Daytona International Speedway in mid-February. Draft contracts have been circulated among the teams, as NASCAR Chairman Brian France looks to put his stamp on yet another landmark initiative.

“We don’t have it finished and it’s still moving around a little bit,” France said during January’s preseason media tour. “The time line is sooner rather than later. This is a complicated plan and structure that will require some time to phase in.”

However, NASCAR is not just brokering a deal with team owners. Team owners are haggling among themselves, in that the layers of ownership are diverse: Tenure vs. youth, multi-car vs. single car organizations, full-time vs. part-time, and wealthy vs. meager resources. With the agreement expected to span five years, which matches the contractual time period NASCAR just signed with all of the speedways that host races, it is critical to get this right.

“Like most things, the devil’s in the details,” according to Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, and former principal of now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing, who is spearheading the discussion on behalf of the owners.

As such, it is not a surprise that NASCAR and the teams are reviewing what is rumored to be a 100 page contract. Teams have different interests. One thing is a certainty, in that attorneys are getting paid handsomely, as hundreds of billable hours are being racked up in trying to put this deal together.

However, the trickiest obstacle is one of valuation. What should a full-time NASCAR charter be worth? Should it vary by race team status? And here is the rub: race teams do not control the sport’s primary assets; NASCAR does. Unlike stick and ball franchises, race teams are not granted an exclusive license to operate a geographic territory. They do not collect the fan ticket sales at the track; they do not own the tracks’ rights fees. And these teams surely do not regulate the competitive schedule nor negotiate the national TV broadcast rights, as that is handled in Daytona headquarters by the sanctioning body.

So, while the LA Dodgers may have been sold for more than $2 billion, the Guggenheim Baseball Partnership lays claim to the ticket sales, concession fees, and, most importantly, the local TV rights sold to Time Warner Cable that will generate $7 billion in incremental revenue over 25 years. Now that is a source of value that justifies an MLB franchise fee.

Breaking this all down, what NASCAR is attempting to sell through the charter license is equivalent to phantom stock sometimes used by entrepreneurs to provide the illusion of ownership for employees in a start-up. However, phantom stock is just that. You get no voting rights, no control, and no expectation of dividends. In the end, the owners may find that the charter is only worth what NASCAR is willing to buy it back for. Only time will tell if new pioneers are willing to step up and buy an outgoing charter to facilitate the coming ownership succession.

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: Joey Logano is Penske’s Title Contender

 “to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”

“to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”

“Yeah Baby! Bristol again! Get you some!!”

The yell over Joey Logano’s radio as he took the checkered flag at this week’s Bristol Motor Speedway IRWIN Tools Night Race for the second straight year and his festive celebration afterwards was not lost on me. Behind Logano’s affable boyish grin and charming outlook lurks a fierce competitor who is Team Penske’s prime threat to win the Sprint Cup title in 2015.

All of 25 years young but in his eighth season, Joey Logano has demonstrated that he is more than ready to win the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship when the series reaches its final playoff round at Homestead Miami Speedway later this year.

What is more significant is that Logano has found a home at Team Penske, and is arguably their best Championship contender as we approach the Darlington Southern 500, the penultimate race before the Chase begins. Back in 2012, Logano was cut loose from Joe Gibb Racing’s legendary Home Depot #20 Cup car, where he was arguably thrust into before his time at the adolescent age of 17.

Such an assertion that Logano is now Team Penske’s prime threat is perhaps brash, given that Brad Keselowski is the team’s senior driver in his sixth full season, and “Bad Brad” has already won one Sprint Cup Championship back in 2012. At that time, he beat Mr. “Six Pack” Jimmie Johnson, at his own game, and proclaimed that “to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”

Make no mistake, Roger Penske is agnostic as to who delivers a title, he just wants the title.

Make no mistake, Roger Penske is agnostic as to who delivers a title, he just wants the title.

Scrutinizing Logano’s performance, we see a consistent trend of advancement since joining Team Penske. In his first year with Team Penske in 2013, Logano’s average finish was 14.1, which was a dramatic improvement over his prior year performance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year, he improved his average finish to 11.3. Now Logano is delivering in the lofty single digit range, with an average finish of 9.0 in 2015, which is second only to Kevin Harvick’s amazing season average of 7.4, as Harvick continues to pick up where he left off last year.

In a head-to-head comparison with his Penske teammate this season, Logano has finished ahead of Keselowski in 15 of the 24 points paying races. Even more stellar, Logano has 14 top five finishes, almost triple the 5 finishes in the top five amassed by his teammate Keselowski. Logano also has led the second most laps this season at 808 (again second only to the Harvick), which is nearly twice the number of laps led by Keselowski.

Last year, Logano advanced to the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway. Multiple issues in the 2014 season finale proved to be the #22 team’s undoing, including Logano hitting the wall early on, as well as a late pit road miscue with 20 laps to go of dropping the jack early, leaving Logano incredibly frustrated and stranded outside the top 20 on the final restart.

None of that baggage from the 2014 season-ending breakdown was in evidence in Bristol on Saturday night as Logano drove a crafty race, hitting his marks with no slip-ups. Bristol can be a scalding cauldron, and even a slight driver error can result in catastrophe. With Harvick filling his mirrors, Logano artistically drove different lines to close the door when necessary, while seamlessly negotiating lapped traffic on the clustered half-mile circuit. Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, called out Logano’s execution as the key to the team’s victory at Bristol. “He performed flawlessly,” proclaimed Gordon after the race. “When it comes down to the time to make it happen, he elevates. Joey never folded and never made a mistake and did what he had to do and executed. It’s a Joey Logano performance.”

The Team Penske boys are hungry to bring Roger another title, no doubt. Still, I’m elevating Logano to the head of the class based on his consistent performance and the shared wisdom that “one must first lose a championship to learn how to win one.” Logano’s time has arrived, as he now exhibits the poise, confidence, and calm demeanor that are trademarks of the Captain’s organization. The current Chase playoff format is inherently chaotic, but I’m staking my claim that Joey Logano will be in the Championship hunt on the final lap of the Ford EcoBoost 400 come November 22nd.

Follow Ron Bottano on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Stewart Should Settle In the Ward Lawsuit

Tony Stewart weathering the storm.

Tony Stewart weathering the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

According to an article from the LA Times in 1986:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR Ditches “Ricky Bobby”, Welcomes Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney is but one of a fantastic crop of young new NASCAR drivers.

Ryan Blaney is but one of a fantastic crop of young new NASCAR drivers.

One thing is guaranteed in life. We all will get older and nobody gets out alive. After that obvious, yet morose, pronouncement there is light at the end of the tunnel, no not that light, young racing drivers coming up through the ranks and Ryan Blaney is one of those.

He’s part of the new crop of drivers that is helping NASCAR ditch the “Ricky Bobby” image and it’s a refreshing place for the Daytona group to find itself.

It’s too soon to say he’s a superstar, he isn’t, but he looks as if he will be joining the talent pool of elites along with several of his alumni.

Ryan Blaney is one of a crop of young drivers in NASCAR whose Fathers were regular competitors, in this case Dave Blaney is his Father. Blaney, the Father often had flashes of brilliance, but his son, Ryan, looks to be capable of surpassing his achievements.

It doesn’t hurt that the young Blaney was on Roger Penske’s radar and is now in the Penske stable. Yes, he drives under the Woods Brothers banner, but make no mistake, this is a Penske effort all the way.

The Woods Brothers are the oldest team still actively competing in NASCAR and with a storied history as well. But like most of the older teams, they fell on hard times against competitors the size of Hendrick. Penske intends to change that.

Ryan Blaney is a Penske driver, with a Penske crew, a Penske crew chief in Jeremy Bullins, Penske engineers and cars built by Penske. It’s a Woods Brothers effort similar to Stewart Haas, but totally run by the Captain.

Blaney has shown that he has the talent to adapt quickly, drive with intelligence, admit his mistakes and not repeat them. His performance at Talladega should confirm that. He found himself at the front in the closing laps of one of the most unusual finishes in that race’s history. It remained single file for an excruciating amount of time. No doubt Blaney would have preferred to have it end like the countless films he watched.

Don't let his youth fool you. Ryan Blaney may become one of NASCAR's elite drivers.

Don’t let his youth fool you. Ryan Blaney may become one of NASCAR’s elite drivers.

Blaney found himself having to depend on Denny Hamlin to make a move in the last few laps and he waited too late. That mistake aside, he’s presented himself as a driver who is more mature than his years.

He’s been racing since he was a child and ran his first Late Model race at age 15. His starts for Tommy Baldwin racing and Brad Keselowski in the truck series put him front and center of the eyes of Tim Cindric and Roger Penske.

He’s running a limited Cup schedule while he’s both being evaluated and sponsorship money is being pursued by Penske.

All outward appearances of his temporary tenure in the Woods Brothers car say that this is a research and development team. Blown motors at Daytona and Texas would indicate that this is the mule team for testing new components.

I would imagine that Blaney relishes this position as at his age learning all of the strange nuances of how these cars handle, what they can take and how much driver input is needed in assessing the components. Valuable information to have when you take that next step up to the varsity team.

Will Penske add a third car? Many believe that he won’t, given the success that he’s having with Keselowski and Logano. But what to do with Blaney?

No one really knows just yet, but he may very well, albeit slowly, bring the Woods Brothers car into a different position than R & D. Ford Motor Company could easily help add that third car to Penske’s stable. Why?

Get out. It’s the Woods Brothers.

NASCAR Testing Ban: Maybe Good, Maybe Bad

Multi-team owner Rick Hendrick with Jeff Gordon.

Multi-team owner Rick Hendrick with Jeff Gordon.

Professional sports, in general, has long been challenged by the lack of parity in the primary participants: No, not the athletes or competitors, who earn millions in their sport of choice and become the faces of cities, franchises and large fan bases that transcend regional and even national boundaries. The true disparity of professional sports, NASCAR is but one example, lies in the owners and the depth of their purses. Entertainment isn’t free, and it is extremely profitable, thus making the world of pro sports the true playground of the ultra wealthy and elite businessman. It is, after all, first and foremost a business, and like any other business, the measure of success is ultimately how profitable a team or franchise is.

This dynamic creates a slippery slope for the continued functioning of a successful sports league. Teams are managed by ultra successful businessmen who understand that winning drives profits, and to that end will invest whatever necessary to create a team that continues to win. The New York Yankees is an excellent example of this paradigm: a perennial winner who consistently courts the best players with the best payroll in all of Major League Baseball. But what makes the slope slippery is where the line is drawn between good competition – and entertainment, and when being a winner suddenly becomes being a bully because one team is able (and willing) to outspend every other. Going back to the Yankees, one recent season it was noted that the payroll of the Bronx Bombers was more than the rest of their division combined.

We wouldn't expect athletes, such as Tiger Woods, not to practice.

We wouldn’t expect athletes, such as Tiger Woods, not to practice.

Some organizations have combated this through rules and compacts, such as salary caps offset by revenue sharing through collective bargaining in the NFL, with the argument being the better quality of competition for all teams at all (aka ‘Any Given Sunday’) is good for the entirety of the sport. While imperfect, this has had a positive effect for the longevity and popularity of professional football as a whole.

NASCAR, to a certain degree, has been addressing similar issues in recent years. Their business model is somewhat different, but as technology has advanced the separation of teams and quality of funding has become more pronounced. NASCAR has attempted several cost cutting measures in the last 15 years, one such example being the now (thankfully) defunct COT, which was supposed to minimize car production cost by standardizing the entirety of the chassis and body, thereby reducing the number of cars a team needed in its fleet to compete for a full season. Other measures include limiting the amount of tires teams can use during an event and testing limits.

Display of money and power, horsepower. Hendrick engine line.

Display of money and power, horsepower. Hendrick engine line.

Testing, by and large, is a huge and arguably unnecessary expense. NASCAR has moved and tweaked their testing policy multiple times, yet with the same results. When testing limits were first introduced, limiting teams to a finite number of testing sessions at sanctioned tracks on the schedule, they inadvertently created the behemoth of powerhouse teams. Up to that point, there was no advantage for race teams to share information with one another.

Example: Jeff Gordon could test as many times per season at as many tracks as possible, and there was no reason or incentive to share that information with any other team, whether or not they were under the Hendrick umbrella or not.

But once NASCAR limited the teams to 5 per season, now the savvy business owners saw the value in creating strong bonds within their own organizations. For example, a single team may be limited to 5 tests per season, but with 4 teams under one team owner, that number becomes 20, far more tests than necessary to compile competition data to share among those teams.

Further, in the name of parity and helping the smaller teams, NASCAR has continued to find that line between competition and bullying, yet the teams with better funding have skirted the spirit of the rules by testing at tracks that don’t have Sprint Cup dates.

With multiple teams, the advantage grows exponentially in information gathering.

With multiple teams, the advantage grows exponentially in information gathering.

This gaming of the system makes NASCAR’s decision to ban all testing outside of approved Goodyear tests a very curious one.   You can be sure drivers don’t lament this decision. Testing is tedious, boring and time consuming. Yet those tests provide invaluable data that teams parlay into results on race day.

Much like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson hit far more golf balls on the range than in tournaments, the fine-tuning of car mechanics and driver practice provide a competitive edge in a sport where the margin between winning and losing is becoming smaller and smaller in terms of technology.

But in a larger sense, Pandora’s box was opened a long time ago. The teams at the top are at the top for a reason: Because they’ve earned their way there. Auto racing, in and of itself, is not a profitable sport. No professional team can afford to stay competitive, nor even operational, if their sole source of revenue is the proceeds of the race purse. That’s why corporate sponsorship is the driver behind the business, and the teams with the best sponsors are the teams that will win. Conversely, the teams with the best sponsors are the teams that have already proven themselves winners.

The seven post shaker rig with the internals buried beneath the floor.

The seven post shaker rig with the internals buried beneath the floor.

So, in NASCAR’s quest to help the little guy, they are, in a sense, handicapping them further. Teams like Hendrick and Penske, Roush Fenway and Stewart Haas, already have the internal processes and people with experience to find ways to advance their programs. For example, when testing bans were truly enforced, the top tier teams simply invested in 7 post shakers, and ran simulations in-house. The same holds true now. The top teams have the resources to find the advantages and use them while the smaller teams do not, which will only reinforce the gap between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Not’s’.

In the movie ‘Days of Thunder’, Randy Quaid’s character was modeled after Rick Hendrick, a local auto dealer who wanted to break into racing. Fast forward 30 years or so, and this feel good story of success is now the exception rather than the rule. Single car teams have not been consistently competitive for two decades now, and as success continues to favor the multi car organization, so will sponsorship dollars.

Money follows winners following money, after all. Now it seems the model is reversed: Build a winning race team, and THEN put your resources into an auto dealership (Rusty Wallace). So, the more roadblocks NASCAR creates, the more creative the ones with resources will be to continue their winning ways. Sponsorship has its advantages, but also its expectations: Win, or lose funding.

The argument can be made that now is a perfect time to try this newest ‘Grand Experiment’. By reducing horsepower (through tapered spacers, so thankfully teams don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel – er, motor) and chopping 2 inches off the spoiler for 2015, all teams are theoretically starting off on a level playing field, as they’re all starting the season with the exact same car. However, just as the New England Patriots continue to find ways to win, so will the Rick Hendricks and Roger Penske’s of the racing world, who have the business acumen and experience to remain competitive no matter what the rules are.

Yet, just like other sporting leagues, there is no perfect solution. Too much tampering and the product on the track suffers, yet not enough, and the same occurs. Perhaps this ban will achieve the desired results, whether temporarily or permanently, though if past experience tells us anything, it will simply further separate those that have from those that don’t.

As an upside, no testing in Daytona means more time for fans to think about things like this.

Keselowski Tightens Penske’s, And Ford’s, Grip On The Chase

With his victory in New Hampshire, Brad Keselowski won his third race of the season and assured himself, and Team Penske, of a spot in the Chase.

With his victory in New Hampshire, Brad Keselowski won his third race of the season and assured himself, and Team Penske, of a spot in the Chase.

A while back I made mention of the fact that while Hendrick Motorsports remains the most dominant team in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, it had a challenger – Team Penske.

That’s truer now than it was just a couple of weeks ago.

Penske’s Brad Keselowski strengthened his team’s cause with his dominating victory in the Camping World RV Sales 301. It was his third of the season.

And the night before he won the Nationwide Series race which means he swept the races at New Hampshire.

He moved into third place in the point standings, behind the Hendrick duo of leader Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski is 38 points out of first place.

But, really, for now points don’t matter. Keselowski’s third win assures him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Penske teammate Joey Logano pretty much has it made, too. While a crash forced him out of the race in New Hampshire and into 40th place, the two victories he has on the season are going to be more than enough to put him in the Chase.

Which means that both drivers for Penske will have a shot at the championship.

It can’t be said, yet, that all of Hendrick’s drivers will be in the 10-race “playoff.”

Oh, it’s certain that three of the four will make it. Jimmie Johnson, who finished 42nd at New Hampshire after a blown left tire led to a wreck, has three victories this season and is a shoo-in.

Keselowski won the Nationwide Series race the day before the Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup event, which gave him a sweep at New Hampshire.

Keselowski won the Nationwide Series race the day before the Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup event, which gave him a sweep at New Hampshire.

Earnhardt Jr. has two and Jeff Gordon one.

The only Hendrick man without a victory is Kasey Kahne. He is 17th in points and, most likely, if he doesn’t win over the next seven races – a tall order – he will be out of the Chase.

To be more specific here, Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. are guaranteed Chase positions because they have multiple wins and are locked into the top 30 in points. It’s very likely others will get their guarantees very soon.

In fact, here’s how the Chas scenario looks, in order based on victories and point standings, after 19 of 26 races.

Keselowski, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bower, Paul Menard and Kyle Lawson. Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer, Menard and Larson have no wins but are good enough in points – for now – to be included.

Keselowski’s New Hampshire win, in which he led 138 of 301 laps, marked the fourth straight victory for Ford this season.

It started with Edwards at Sonoma, followed by Keselowski’s victory at Kentucky, Almirola’s at Daytona and Keselowski again.

The last time Ford won four races in a row was in 2001, with Dale Jarrett, who earned three wins at Darlington, Texas and Martinsville, and Elliott Sadler, the winner at Bristol.

“Ford wants us to win, and they want to give us what we need to win,” said team owner Roger Penske. “I’d have to say that you couldn’t ask for a better weekend. 

“I’ve already gotten many emails from the top people at Ford.  They’re watching it every day.  Their dealers are watching it and to me that makes the difference.

At the end of the day you can’t have a great car if you don’t have the best driver, and I can tell you that at New Hampshire there was nobody that could beat Brad.”

Keselowski was the 2012 champion but had a disappointing 2013 season in which he won only one race, finished 14th in points and failed to make it into the postseason.

Before that, Tony Stewart, the 2005 champion, was the last to miss the Chase the next year.

Well, for Keselowski, being out of the Chase isn’t going to happen this season – obviously.

“I think in a lot of ways we’re stronger than in 2012,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. 

“We had tremendous speed at New Hampshire and I think there’s potential left, like I said, with different things.  So that’s all very encouraging to me.  I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. 

“I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver and I think we’re combining all those things.

“We’re seeing the fruits of that labor with, like I said, more to come.”

Indeed, there could be more to come for Keselowski and Penske. But it is the same for Hendrick.

The only thing we’re pretty certain of, at the moment, is that the two teams will have five drivers in the Chase.

2012 NASCAR Season Had Surprises, Of Course, And More Are Ahead In 2013

Certainly one of the most surprising developments of 2012 was Brad Keselowski’s (right) first career Sprint Cup championship. The title was also the first for his team owner, Roger Penske.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, like all others that have preceded it, had it share of elation and frustration, success and failure and a good measure of surprising developments.

Also, 2012 had a thing or two none of us had ever seen before, and are unlikely to see again. Juan Pablo Montoya’s fiery encounter with a jet dryer at Daytona comes to mind here.

It was mostly in competition that we saw the unexpected, the unusual, success and failure – well, perhaps not entire failure but certainly performances that did not live up to expectations.

And we also saw performances that soared past our expectations.

There are at least two examples of this and my opinion is that the most notable is the overall, breakout performance by Michael Waltrip Racing.

MWR has never been considered a championship caliber team (I’m sure team members will disagree). So for it to place two drivers in the Chase and have one enjoy a “comeback” season to finish second in the final point standings is something very much unanticipated.

Clint Bowyer came over to MWR from Richard Childress Racing, a move necessitated by a lack of sponsorship and which ended a seven-year relationship.

Bowyer will be the first to tell you that he really had no idea what he was getting himself into.

He knew hardly anyone at MWR and no sense of which direction the team would go.

Bowyer had won five races during his tenure with RCR and made it into the top 10 in points in three of five seasons.

Therefore, it was only natural that he wondered if he could approach such performances as the new man at MWR.

Well, he did – and then some.

Bowyer won three races, easily made the Chase and at Homestead, the final event of the season, he finished second to Jeff Gordon.

That allowed him to ease past Jimmie Johnson to take second place in the point standings. That was not only his career-best finish, it was the highest ever achieved by a MWR driver.

To compliment Bowyer’s achievement, MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr., also made the Chase.

Perhaps one of the most disappointing performances of 2012 was given by Tony Stewart. The 2011 Sprint Cup champ never contended for a title in the past season.

He was disappointed that he did not win a race or finish higher than 11th in the standings, but he did qualify for the 10-race “playoff” for the first time since 2007 and the first time with MWR.

MWR’s performance in 2012 clearly indicates it is a team on the rise. More than that, it overcame much of the rather shallow opinions most observers had expressed over recent years.

For 2013 the team’s task is simple: Gather the momentum and use it to create a better season.

I am one of many who suggested that team owner Roger Penske and driver Brad Keselowski would not be a championship contender in 2012.

After all, despite all his efforts with those who drove and worked for him, he had never claimed a title.

And Keselowski? He was in only his third full season of Sprint Cup competition, all with Penske.

As I’ve said more than once maybe we should have seen it coming. By that I mean, Keselowski’s credentials as a driver had steadily improved since his union with Penske.

In 2011 Keselowski won three races and accumulated 14 top-10 finishes to power his way into fifth place in the final point standings.

What he did in 2012 was simple: He got better. He won five times with 23 finishes among the top 10. He was constantly among the point leaders and sealed the championship in Homestead.

Although few thought it would happen, Penske won his first Sprint Cup title and Keselowski became only the third driver to win a championship in his third full season. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were the others.

Even though Penske has left Dodge for Ford, no one will overlook Keselowski in 2013. As it is for every team in a coming season if Penske Racing can adapt quickly to the new Ford, there’s no reason to think Keselowski can’t make it two in a row.

Seems odd to say, but by its standards, Hendrick Motorsports could have had a better season.

Don’t get me wrong. What it accomplished was significant. It put all four of its teams in the Chase, had one driver, five-type champ Johnson, finish a single point out of second place and all four drivers won races.

But with a little touch of fortune here and there, it could have been better for Hendrick.

Kasey Kahne, for example, was expected to flourish. He did win two races but that was fewer than most expected. However, he finished a career-high fourth in points.

Kahne put together a solid second half to earn one of two Chase wildcards. He then rallied from 11th to fourth in the 10-race playoff.

With that strong finish, Kahne might be a contender next season.

But of all the Hendrick drivers – or almost any driver, for that matter – Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a most dramatic 2012 season.

He had to be frustrated over the conclusion. A pair of concussions sidelined him for two races, eliminating any title hopes. However, Earnhardt Jr. had his best season at Hendrick and his best in eight years.

Prior to the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. not only easily made the field but was a serious championship contender.

He won for the first time in four years and was in the top three in points most of the season and led the standings for two weeks in August.

The “Junior Nation” recognized Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence in 2012 and I have no doubt it hopes for better things in 2013. Frankly, I would not be surprised if it got them.

Other things that might have raised our eyebrows in 2012 were the lackluster – by their standards – performances by Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, the 2011 champ. Count on them as two guys looking for redemption in 2013.

As it has always been, NASCAR fans are always eager to see what might evolve in a coming season.

There’s plenty on the menu: How will teams, and NASCAR, adapt to new 2013 models? Can certain drivers, like Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth, adapt with new teams? Is there yet another upstart contender out there? Will we some of the veterans return to winning form?

There’s more, of course, a lot more.

In the end, anticipation and expectation are two things that make NASCAR fun – pure and simple.

On a personal note, thanks to all of you who have visited Motorsports Unplugged over the years. Hopefully you have been entertained and informed.

New content resumes at the first of 2013. Until then, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Driver, Brad Keselowski Is Far More Than Personality And Twitter

As recognized as he is as a driver, Brad Keselowski is also noted as somewhat of a "character." What helped give rise to that was his willingness to use Twitter during races, as he is doing here.

Sometimes Brad Keselowski doesn’t act like he’s 28 years old. To put it another way, he doesn’t act his age – maybe it’s more 18 rather than 28.

But that’s a good thing. Beyond just outgoing and sociable, I daresay the driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., can be downright mischievous.

He’s the guy who gained a lot of notoriety when it was learned he was on Twitter during races. He has fun with it and, I daresay, a lot of other things.

Like many of you, I’ve read several of his “tweets,” (I trust that is the correct word) and sometimes he sounds like a standup comedian.
Once I thought I’d get into the Twitter act and see what would happen. I had just written a piece about him and afterward he won that weekend’s race.

So I sent: “Great race. You made me look like a genius.”

His response: “Anything to help, bro.”

I admit I got a kick out of that.

However, while personality and a good sense of humor do count in racing, they do not, alone, make a successful driver. Results count for much more.

When the results are good, and happen often, a driver eventually becomes acknowledged as one of the best in NASCAR.

For Keselowski the results have been good. And they have occurred often.

That is the reason many think he is destined to become a NASCAR star – if he’s not already. It can’t be denied his star is on the rise.

Keselowski has proven to be a winner. That first happened in 2009, when he drove in 15 Sprint Cup races.

Six of them were with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team.

Keselowski won at Talladega for Finch in April, a truly surprising victory because he had only a few Cup races under his belt and he won with a second-tier team.

That certainly raised eyebrows. But Keselowski wasn’t immediately tagged as a driver with a bright future. After all, unpredictableTalladega has produced more than its share of surprise winners.

Keselowski's team owner, Roger Penske, is man known for his ability to recognize talent. He hired Keselowski in 2010 and to date, the union has produced excellent results.

In 2010, Roger Penske, a team owner with a well-known eye for talent, hired Keselowski. Their first year together was mundane with no wins, only two finishes among the top 10 and a 25th in points.

But that was not unexpected. After all, it was Keselowski’s first crack at full schedule.

What was unexpected was Keselowski’s 2011 season with Penske. The third-generation driver won three times.

Two of his victories came later in the season and helped propel him into the Chase. He was 11th in points before it began and fifth at the end of the season.

“We were focused on 2011, what we could do to maximize it and we’re very proud of the season that we had,” Keselowski said last year.

“I’m very, very happy with Penske Racing.

“You know, I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of. I think as time goes on, if we can continue to grow like we have this year the sky’s the limit for all of Penske Racing.”

So far Keselowski has been proven right. He’s already won three times this year, at Bristol, Talladega and most recently, Kentucky. His three victories tie him with Tony Stewart for most this season.

Keselowski is 10th in points and with his three victories is all but guaranteed a place in the Chase for the second time in three seasons.

Lest anyone think Keselowski is just a gifted driver making the most of good equipment, at New Hampshire there was strong evidence that he is a tough, resilient competitor who can make the most of unfavorable circumstances.

Keselowski finished fifth at New Hampshire, his sixth top-five run of the year – which ties his output for all of 2011.

It wasn’t so much that Keselowski finished fifth; rather, it’s how he did it.

He started 22nd and by the 90th lap he was among the top 10. He was the only driver who started outside the top 12 to finish inside it.

He was able to do that at a track on which it is notoriously difficult to pass and in a Dodge that wasn’t, well, perfect.
“We had really good long-run speed but we weren’t as good as we needed to be on the short runs,” Keselowski said. “Our balance was a little bit shifted.

“That played a big role in it all. Track position is everything and the further up you are, the better air you’ve got. We just never really had that.”

Keselowski agreed that to finish fifth from a poor starting position was indeed a good day.

“But it wasn’t easy,” he added. “It was tough. It was hot. That’s racing and it’s not supposed to be easy.”

Clearly, Keselowski can meet the physical and mental rigors of the sport. He can overcome. That certainly enhances his status.

“It was hard fought,” he said of New Hampshire. “We drove from the back to the front. Had a really strong run.

“You hate not to be happy about it. Being happy for us is winning. But at New Hampshire, that was all we had and we all had to make the most of it. I’m proud of our effort.”

I have no doubt that many other people are as well.

For them, probably the best way to let him know is to “tweet.” He’ll get the message, for sure.

For A.J. Allmendinger, Drug Scenario Is Unfortunate No Matter The Outcome

When it was announced that A.J. Allmendinger was suspended from NASCAR following a positive drug test, Penske Racing immediately flew in Sam Hornish Jr. as his replacement for the Daytona race.

Ninety minutes before Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona the announcement came that A.J. Allmendinger had failed a random substance abuse test and had been suspended.

It’s fair to say that among fans and media members there was a strong feeling of disbelief. The announcement, made by Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, was brief and shocking. No questions were addressed.

Among the media cell phones and laptops were put into high gear in hope of reaching assignment editors at newspapers and websites.

The subject of drug testing is all too familiar given the sad demise of Jeremy Mayfield, a former NASCAR star who failed a drug test in 2009 – and went straight downhill to bigger legal problems.

Allmendinger was asked to take part in a random drug test after the race at Kentucky on June 30. His A sample tested positive. The type of drugs and amounts in question were not disclosed.

Under established NASCAR rules, Allmendinger has the right to request that his B sample be tested within 72 hours. Should he refuse to have that sample tested, or if that test is positive, he will be suspended indefinitely.

In a last minute, dramatic substitution, Sam Hornish replaced Allmendinger in the No. 22 Dodge at Daytona and is scheduled to drive the car again at New Hampshire this weekend.

In an article in USA Today on July 8, team owner Roger Penske said, “You know it’s a disappointment at this particular time, but we’re going to wait and see what the second test results are before we make any comment or decisions.

“I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think as you look at sports, things happen like this. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t really want to make a statement pro or con right now. I’m counting on another test being proper for him within 72 hours, and at that point we’ll make a decision.”

To be fair to Allmendinger, it is possible that the test was a false positive. Until conclusive evidence proves he is guilty, none of us should rush to judgment.

After Mayfield’s very public fall from grace and the years of court battles that followed, NASCAR has been very cautious and thorough about drug testing – and about every aspect of Allmendinger’s suspension.

I do believe NASCAR officials would rather not have to travel this road with any of their competitors.

The only other high-profile NASCAR driver implicated in a drug abuse scenario has been Jeremy Mayfield, whose suspension from NASCAR has led to several legal situations that have virtually ended his career.

Still, once again, a top driver is in the news for substance abuse and is the subject of negative press.

The saddest part of this story is that Allmendinger is truly one of the nicest guys in this sport who had worked hard to get to NASCAR’s top level.

For years, his parents made huge financial sacrifices to help him race, to the tune of several home mortgages to keep his dream alive.

He is a commoner that came up the hard way and a driver with whom fans can relate.

Allmendinger reached the pinnacle of his career when the call to drive the No. 22 Penske Dodge came prior to the start of the 2012 season. He was tapped to replace Kurt Busch, a driver who had displayed his hot temper one time too many and lost one of the premier rides of his career.

Allmendinger has been a breath of fresh air for Penske since January. He’s helped put bad publicity aside, been great with fans and was considered a driver for whom success was merely a matter of time.

It may well come. Let’s get one thing straight. Allmendinger is involved in a very difficult, and career threatening, situation.

But as of now, he has not been proven guilty of anything. That may never happen.

However, right now he is still a high-profile driver implicated – implicated, mind you – in a drug abuse scenario.

Nine drivers who have competed in the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series have been suspended for failed drug tests since February of 2002. Crew members from those divisions have also been suspended over the past decade.

Allmendinger is only the second driver in Sprint Cup competition to be suspended, following Mayfield.

Even if Allmendinger emerges as “clean” following a second test, it may be that, however unfairly, he is tainted.

Today in NASCAR, many winners of the biggest and most prestigious events can’t find full-season sponsorship.

Given that, it seems virtually impossible for a team to sell a driver with any hint of substance abuse, real or otherwise, to, say, a Fortune 500 company.

One question remains: Why do NASCAR competitors partake in such behavior?

During the vast majority of NASCAR’s six decades of existence drug testing was never a consideration.

Make no mistake there has always been substance abuse. For example, I think it’s accurate to say that over the years many hungover drivers came to a track on race day.

But as the times changed and all of professional sports were plagued by cases of drug abuse – ranging from alcohol to steroids and everything in between – NASCAR felt a policy needed to be put in place.

Demands are huge for any individual who competes in any of NASCAR’s top divisions. Everyone is watching, listening and scrutinizing every move a driver, and team, make.

There is pressure in any professional sport and sometimes the need to do well can overtake common sense.

That may be true, but it is not an excuse. If drugs are used to relieve that pressure, that does not make it right.

If they are used recreationally, let’s just say for the hell of it, well … there are no excuses whatsoever.

I would like to think that perhaps NASCAR could offer some counseling or intervention before positive drug results make the headlines and ruin careers.

I doubt that will ever come to pass.

But I would also like to think that A.J. Allmendinger will emerge unscathed – with a lesson learned.

 

 

 

 

 

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