If Evidence Is Anything, Edwards Earns Title Sooner Than Later

Edwards

Carl Edwards did all he could to win his first career Cup championship in 2011. He was the points leader for most of the Chase, but in the last race of the year he gave way to Tony Stewart, who won five times in the last 10 races. Edwards has learned from the experience and should again be a title contender.

If most of the media picked up on the vibes Carl Edwards emitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, which I think they did, they got the sense that the Roush Fenway Racing driver enjoyed himself.

But he also clearly felt the disappointment of losing the Sprint Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Shoot, do you really have to be told that? NASCAR drivers are intense competitors who love to win and hate to lose.

To have a championship within grasp only to see it snatched away at the last moment has to be agonizingly frustrating.

Throughout NASCAR’s history there have been many types of competitors, ranging from those who raced as an expensive hobby, to those who won multiple championships and became legends.

There have also been some who have come very close to winning a championship, but never did so throughout their careers.

I don’t think Edwards is going to be one of them.

First, if experience in championship tussles means anything, Edwards has lots of it. He finished third in 2005, second in 2008 and fourth in 2010.

Of course, there followed the 2011 season. Edwards was the point leader going into the final race at Homestead, where he finished second.

Unfortunately, rival Tony Stewart won the race to forced a tie in points with Edwards at 2,403.

Stewart became champ on the tiebreaker, which was the most seasonal wins. Stewart had five – all in the Chase – and Edwards had only one. That proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Second, Edwards has said that, rather than succumb to disappointment and continually bemoan his fate, he is going to learn from the experience and do just a bit better in 2012.

Edwards knows, and has told us more than once, that his team was clearly championship caliber in 2011. At no time during the Chase did he, or it, make a mistake too large to overcome.

Nor did either give in to Stewart and his Stewart-Haas team. As the season came to an end, Edwards and Stewart fought for every point they earned in the Chase. One never attained a significant gain over the other.

Edwards lost the title by, perhaps, the only way he could have: because of a scintillating, come-from-behind performance in the Chase by Stewart.

Edwards looks at racing as his career, during which he wants to get better with each passing season. Therefore, he looks at 2011 as a stepping stone, something from which he has learned valuable lessons.

He vows he will not let emotions rule performance. If he slips competitively in 2012 it won’t be because “We got messed up in the head over not winning the championship.”

Let’s add proper attitude to experience as another ingredient for a championship.

Edwards has both.

Which is why I think that sooner or later – most likely sooner – he’s going to earn one.

As an aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how hard Edwards presses for victories next year. Something else I suspect he learned in 2011 is that the more he wins, the better his chances will be to emerge a champion if it all goes down to the wire.

If the outcome was disappointing, nevertheless Edwards’ championship run was the high-water mark for the Roush organization in 2011.

Edwards and his team took the lead in the four-car organization. Those that followed had seasons rated very good to unexpectedly unproductive.

Matt Kenseth was the only other Roush driver to join Edwards in the Chase. After the reseeding, he was fourth in points with two wins, one position ahead of Edwards.

Kenseth had five top-five finishes in the Chase, including a victory at Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth (left) put up some good numbers for Roush Fenway Racing and joined Edwards as the only team drivers to make the Chase. Greg Biffle did not have the type of season expected of him and wasn't eligible for the Chase. He was 15th in points when the 10-race "playoff" began.

He rose as high as second in points following Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, but finishes of 31st at Martinsville and 34th at Phoenix greased the path for his fourth-place standing at season’s end.

Kenseth, the 2004 champ, can certainly claim another title for Roush. His team can, and does, win races. However, perhaps a little more consistency would seal the deal.

Greg Biffle never figured in the Chase. With no wins, only one top-five finish and seven among the top 10, when the Chase began he was 15th in points and on the outside looking in.

I’m pretty sure Biffle – and Roush – are not pleased with all of that and I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that something needs to be done at Biffle’s team. I strongly suspect that is something the organization already knows.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, David Ragan won his first career a long way toward fulfilling the potential Jack Roush saw in him.

Ragan flirted with making the Chase, hoping that the victory would be enough to land him in one of the final two slots in the 12-car field.

It didn’t work out that way and Ragan finished 19th in points.

It seems all but certain he won’t be with Roush next year. The UPS sponsorship his team enjoyed has moved on and with no new financial backing on the horizon, Roush has released Ragan to search for work elsewhere (Penske?).

It appears Roush will be a three-car team next year – and it still needs to locate sponsorship for Kenseth’s team.

While Roush may be one of several organizations downsizing – or closing – because of the economic situation, I don’t think anyone should be surprised if it puts, at the very least, one car into the Chase in 2012.

Nor should we be surprised if that car is driven by Carl Edwards.

Edwards, Kenseth On Top, But Situation Is Tenuous At Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – At least four drivers, perhaps five, have to be considered leading contenders for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship over the final four races of the Chase.

The first of the season-closing quartet of events is Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. As the only short track on the 10-race “playoff” schedule, the flat, 0.566-mile track – the smallest and oldest in NASCAR – will offer its own unique set of challenges for the competitors.

Believe me, they know it.

The top two drivers in the current point standings, leader Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who is just 14 points in arrears, have to be a little leery at Martinsville.

Neither one of them has an impressive record at the track. Edwards’ average finish is 16.8; Kenseth’s is 15.8.

Edwards indicated he would be pleased if he got out of Martinsville with a decent finish, much less a victory.

“This place has been a really tough race track for me and our team,” he said, “but we have had some really good runs here.

Matt’s good run in the spring (sixth place) is really what gives us the confidence we have here, and, hopefully, we can go run well and keep this points lead or extend it moving forward toward some tracks that we’re really confident about.”

Kenseth is also fully aware of what could be at stake at Martinsville.

I really struggle at the track,” he said. “It hasn’t been one of my best tracks. Yet we’ve run really well the last two or three races so I’m looking forward to it.

Unlike it was last week at Talladega, at Martinsville you have a little more to do, I think, with your finish at the end of the day. So I’m looking forward to that.”

I’ve said before that unless they put up some good numbers, Edwards and Kenseth are vulnerable. Waiting to pounce are third-place Brad Keselowski, 18 points out of the lead, fourth-place Tony Stewart, 19 points down and Kevin Harvick, who stands fifth, 26 points back.

Kyle Busch stands sixth and is 40 points down, followed by five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is 50 points in arrears. The odds are heavily against both drivers.

However, that doesn’t mean they have given up.

As long as we are mathematically in it, I’m not going to give up hope,” Johnson said. “I just never have been one to lay down on something, to quit or not to try.

We have four races left of the schedule and stuff can happen.”’

It’s obvious Keselowski and Stewart are in the best position to challenge Edwards and Kenseth and thus break the Roush grip on the top point positions.

However, being in a good position to do something is not, certainly, the same thing as actually doing it.

Johnson alluded to that when he said there are four races left and anything can happen.

Kenseth would agree with that – fact is, all the others would as well.

It is hard for me to comment about racing Carl down the stretch because, honestly, there is so much racing to do,” Kenseth said. “I haven’ t really looked at the points. I don’t know who is out of it or who is in it.

I know we are in a pretty good spot right now but yet I think we have to outrun Carl every week. It seems he’s been able to get good finishes, even on his bad days. But I also think we’ve run better on all the tracks except Dover.

So we just have to get the good finishes, too, and I won’t race Carl any different than I do any other driver out there.”

While Edwards knows full well that his teammate is his most serious challenger, he echoed the sentiments express by all the contenders: Anything can happen and anyone can win.

I think all of those guys (Kenseth, Keselowski, Harvick and Stewart) are gonna be tough,” he said. “I know how tough Matt can be. He could literally go win three out of the next four races and dominate this thing.

I think from what we’ve seen out of Brad this year, I think he’s a huge threat. He hasn’t made any mistakes. He’s done a really good job.

Tony is a two-time champion and only 19 points out. I think all of those guys are tough – even Jimmie. I know a lot of people are discounting Jimmie, but those guys (the No. 48 Hendrick team) can definitely win this race and any of the others.”

Given that anything can happen, it follows that it won’t take much at Martinsville to alter the point standings and thus the Chase.

Logic dictates that for Edwards and Kenseth to avoid that, they are going to have to perform well Sunday on a track on which their performances have been mostly mediocre.

Martinsville has been one of those tracks, to me, that I come to and, I guess for the last few races, I’ve come to it dreading it a little bit,” Edwards said. “But now I come to it just realizing, ‘Hey, I’ve got my work cut out for me. I have to perform well. I have to go out there and give everything I’ve got.’

To me, to come out of here with a top 10 would be a success. So I don’t dread it as much any more. Now, I just look at it as, ‘Hey, this is going to be a challenge.’ ”

Bayne’s Situation Nothing New In Plate Racing And The Draft

 Bayne

Trevor Bayne was upset with the circumstances in which he was involved at the end of the race at Talladega. But he didn't do anything wrong. Rather, he was caught up in what NASCAR restrictor-plate racing is all about - which includes strategy and, yes, even politics.

It’s been suggested by many that Trevor Bayne ease up on himself following the circumstances in which he was involved at Talladega.

After all, he didn’t do anything wrong.

Bayne expressed abject dissatisfaction with himself, and others, when he abandoned Jeff Gordon in the Good Sam Club 500’s high-speed draft to assist fellow Ford driver and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Bayne, who races part-time for the Wood Brothers but is under contract to Roush, was distressed that he could not keep an arrangement with Gordon that would allow the two drivers to remain hooked up in a two-car draft until the end of the race, only two laps away.

Instead, Bayne maintained he was “strong armed” to assist Kenseth and added that he would never be put in such a situation again.

Prior to the race, persistent rumors suggested that Ford officials had told their drivers that in the “dancing partner” draft, that is now prevalent at Talladega and Daytona, they should work with other Ford drivers only.

Do not assist any other driver with any other manufacturer.

Jamie Allison, director of Ford racing, has denied such orders were ever issued. He said the only time the matter of Ford drivers helping Ford drivers arose was in conversations before the race. If it could be done, it should in order to show appreciation for their relationships with Ford Motorsports.

Added Allison in a published report, “At the end of the day, when you look at it, it’s very cut and dry. Trevor did what he needed to help a teammate.”

Which is correct. When Kenseth lost drafting partner David Ragan, Bayne felt obligated. He had no choice. He had to abandon Gordon, even if the end results might have been better.

Kenseth came to Talladega as a strong challenger for the championship after his victory in Charlotte. He was in third place, two spots behind leader and Roush teammate Carl Edwards, in the standings.

With a good finish at Talladega Kenseth could have pressed the championship issue. But that would never happen without a drafting partner.

So Bayne was his man. And, as said, Bayne had no choice.

If he had stuck with Gordon while Kenseth lost position after position, what kind of post-race reception do you think Bayne would have received from team owner Jack Roush – not to mention from Kenseth and his No. 17 team?

As a young driver striving to solidify a career in Sprint Cup racing, Bayne wisely avoided any confrontation with the team that has, to date, offered him his best competitive opportunity.

To me, the entire issue is something of a tempest in a teapot. It’s certainly not unique. In fact, when it comes to restrictor-plate racing and the draft – no matter how many cars are involved – this sort of thing has been part of NASCAR for decades.

It’s all meshed into the strategy and, perhaps more so, the politics required in plate racing and the draft.

One of the vital keys to success at Daytona and Talladega is to find the right drafting partner. It’s always been that way.

Naturally, teammates want to help each other – and should. They work with each other many times over practice sessions to determine if they can find the combination that clicks. Sometimes they do. Many more times they don’t.

If things don’t work a team’s next task it to find another with which it can potentially win the race.

Little thought is given to what team that could be. More important, the model of car it uses doesn’t matter one bit.

If a team with a Chevrolet finds that in the draft its highest speeds are turned with another that fields a Ford – and the Ford team likes the results as well – then a deal is made. They will hook up in the draft for as long as possible.

Call it diplomacy or politics, that’s how it has always worked.

While I’m fully aware that manufacturers have issued edicts from time to time, I don’t think any one of them has been stupid enough to decree that teams with their models must help each other only in the draft.

That includes Ford, incidentally, and is why I believe Allison.

For a manufacturer to make such a mandate could potentially remove any chance at victory. You can bet a team that posted its fastest laps drafting with another with a different model is going to be highly irritated. So is the driver.

The goal is to win. It’s what racing is all about. It’s what the team owner wants, the driver wants, the team wants and, most important, what the sponsor wants.

Manufacturers know all this because victory is what they also crave. Wins can provide a heckuva lot of successful sales pitches at the dealerships.

So never expect a manufacturer to make a decree that could cramp any of its teams’ styles. It makes no sense.

Drafting is all about partnerships. And any two drivers can be partners for a single race. There have been some unlikely combinations in many past plate races but sometimes they worked to near perfection – as it was for Bayne and Gordon in this year’s Daytona 500, won by Bayne.

But at other times, for many reasons, as good as the combination might be circumstances force a change.

It might be due to what is unfolding on the track. Or, indeed, it might be due to politics.

But it has happened and will continue to happen. In the future there will be a driver who, at the end of a plate race, will feel every bit as frustrated as Bayne.

It’s plate racing. It’s the draft. It is what it has been, is now and will be.

Mr. Smith’s Improbable Journey At Darlington Raceway

A couple of points to consider after the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway:

** Sometimes racing rewards us with the unexpected, the unanticipated.

Something happens that is so far beyond the limits of our belief that we really can’t fathom it. We can only can only stand there in amazement, somewhat slack-jawed as we say to ourselves and anyone else who cares to listen, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

We had such a moment in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. For years it has been one of NASCAR’s most prominent and venerated races. It’s the oldest held on an asphalt track. It’s conducted on a 1.366-mile layout that is considered the toughest in all of stock car racing.

It is a race that has been won by the likes of David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and other giants of the sport. Journeymen and, essentially, nobodies do not win it.

Now, however, it has been done. The Southern 500 will go into lore as one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history and one of the most feel-good finishes of all time.

That’s because it was won by Regan Smith – yes, the same Regan Smith who is part of an underfunded, one-car team, which has 64 employees, uses a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.

It’s the same Regan Smith who has routinely began regarded as, at best, an also-ran in any race he’s entered.

And, perhaps, the same Regan Smith many of us regarded as a nobody. Trust me, after Darlington he is somebody special, indeed.

“I’m not supposed to do this,” said the 27-year-old Smith as he choked up with tears in victory lane. “I’ve never even had a top five.”

At Darlington, Smith wasn’t handed anything. He earned it.

He gambled and stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted for tires with 10 laps remaining. He told us later that the strategy was one he hoped crew chief Pete Rondeau would adopt.

Smith appeared to be a sitting duck. Behind him on the restart was Carl Edwards, who had been a strong as nine rows of garlic throughout the trace and, unlike Smith, was on fresh tires.

Smith spun his tires on the restart but held the lead. He caught a bit of a break when Brad Keselowski wedged himself between Smith and Edwards.

He caught another when he bobbled – only to have Edwards do the same thing.

Despite his newer tires, Edwards could never reach Smith, who managed to keep his Chevrolet in the fresh air.

Smith led Edwards, the points leader, over the green-white-checkered finish and in so doing, put his name alongside those of the sport’s greats.

Smith’s accomplishment was not lost on others. Among those who congratulated him afterward were Kurt Busch, Greg Biffile and Edwards, who said that if he couldn’t win it was good that Smith did.

Smith is the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie of the year who has gained some notoriety of late because of excellent qualifying efforts.

But he’s seldom, if ever, been considered a victory contender. Everything seems to have worked against him – a small team based in Denver, Colo., of all places, and one that has never been given any chance against the sport’s powerhouses, like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the like.

Smith, however, came close to victory prior to Darlington. In 2008, he passed Tony Stewart for what appeared to be a win at Talladega until NASCAR took it away because Smith went below the yellow, out-of-bounds, line.

This victory will not be taken away from Smith.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith, who earned his first NASCAR victory and admittedly, first of any kind that he can remember. “When I walked to the car today, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did.

“I can’t believe his. It’s too cool.”

What Smith has given us, and NASCAR, is yet another unanticipated moment when an underdog proves his mettle.

We saw it in Daytona this year when young Trevor Bayne shocked, and pleased, everyone with his victory in the 500 – which restored immeasurable luster to the tarnished, yet venerated, team known as Wood Brothers Racing.

When you think about it, isn’t to have someone succeed despite odds and adversity a true essence and beauty of sports?

Of course it is.

 

 

** Now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s too bad that with his victory, Smith had to share the limelight, even in the slightest, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Truth is that after the Southern 500, most of the talk and TV highlights will be about these two.

They engaged in some bumping and grinding on the track and that carried over a postrace confrontation in which Harvick took a couple of swings at Busch as the two stopped post-race on the track, just above pit road.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you fans and media alike enjoy driver dust-ups. If nothing else, they smack of the good ol’ days of NASCAR, when competitors settled issues among themselves with fists, tire irons or maybe even a .38.

And there’s nothing wrong with venting, if for no other reason than that given by Tony Stewart, who said that blowing off steam never fixed a car, but it often made a driver feel better.

Hope Busch and Harvick feel better because they certainly did themselves no service.

When it comes to incidents between drivers, NASCAR has tried extremely hard to let the issues be settled among themselves.

Doesn’t always work, as was made clear in the latest episode of Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman.

However, when NASCAR does decide to act that’s when a team can potentially suffer, especially if the sanctioning body responds with loss of points, probation, etc.

When Montoya seemed to show no signs of perceived over aggressiveness in the Southern 500, reportedly NASCAR conveyed its dislike.

Montoya retreated into a shell and was a non-entity for the remainder of the race. Didn’t serve him well in points.

As for Busch-Harvick, we don’t yet know if NASCAR is going to take the matter into its own hands. But you can bet the farm it will.

That’s because when Harvick decided to take a poke at Busch, Harvick’s unattended car rushed across pit road and slammed into the inside pit wall.

That car could have hit any number of people or, worse, pinned someone against the wall.

NASCAR may be relenting when it comes to driver vs. driver, but anytime their actions threaten the well being of others, the sanctioning body wastes no time in judgment.

They may not have been intentional, but Harvick’s actions posed a serious danger on pit road. This is something NASCAR will not tolerate.

I would be stunned if Harvick does not receive a rather stiff punishment sometime this week – maybe Busch, too, but certainly Harvick.

It’s just one example of how a confrontation can get out of hand and become, in the end, much more than for what a driver bargained.

 

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.

 

Early Season Storylines, Including Vegas, A Boon For NASCAR

Carl Edwards was the convincing winner in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has now won three of the last five NASCAR Sprint Cup races dating back to 2010.
Good for him. He and Roush Fenway Racing earned and deserved the victory.
He didn’t make for the best story, however – although I reckon he doesn’t care a twit about that.
What would have made for a better tale, and most likely attracted wider fan and media recognition, is if, perhaps, either Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished third, or Marcos Ambrose, who wound up fourth, had won.
Each would have won his first NASCAR race on an oval track. In Montoya’s case most of South America, and its media, would have gone nuts. As for Ambrose, his popularity in Australia in so huge the country may have declared a national holiday.
Think of what might mean for NASCAR. It would have received huge international media attention.
Again, this isn’t to slight Edwards’ achievement by any means.
It’s all about storylines and what they can mean to NASCAR. Those that have evolved in the first two Sprint Cup races of the season, and in all three Nationwide Series events, have been a boon to the sanctioning body.
I have to think what has helped propel NASCAR off to a good start – which includes higher television ratings – is, of course, some pretty good racing. But there have also been some fortunate storylines that have gone beyond interesting. They’ve been compelling and have attracted much national attention – all of it positive.
For example, there were a couple of them at Las Vegas.
Mark Martin – who seems destined to drive forever – won the Sam’s Town 300 Nationwide race to record his 49th victory in the series, a record, and his 96th in NASCAR.
Sure, Martin likely wouldn’t have won the race if Brad Keselowski hadn’t suffered a blown tire and wrecked on the last lap. Even Martin admitted as much but he added he’s lost plenty of races for the same reason. So have many other drivers. Keselowski is now one of them.
Martin has been racing for over two decades and is easily one of the most respected drivers in the garage area. He’s hugely popular with fans, too, and I think one reason is that he provides a living, competitive link to NASCAR’s past.
I think the vast majority of fans want to see Martin win and I don’t think they’d mind a bit if, somehow, he could earn his first career Sprint Cup championship. He’s been the runnerup five times, the last time in 2009, when he won five races and finished 141 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Martin didn’t win a Sprint Cup race in 2010 and his last Nationwide victory was in 2008, although, admittedly, he’s made an extremely limited number of starts on the circuit in three years.
Nevertheless, that Martin, the vastly appreciated old-timer, was victorious at Vega is a true “feel good” story that appeals to fans and media alike.
But Martin didn’t generate the most national attention out of Vegas. Danica Patrick, with her fourth-place finish, did.
Patrick made history. She became the highest-finishing woman in a NASCAR race, eclipsing the mark held by Sara Christian for 61 years. Patrick has been a media magnet throughout her entire racing career, so it follows she was even more so after Vegas.
She shared headlines with Martin. Heck, she might have gotten more of ‘em.
It’s been duly noted that Patrick has steadily improved in NASCAR. And some media members have already begun to wonder, if she maintains a steady growth, she might opt to remain in stock cars and leave IndyCar behind.
Well, that’s currently a matter for speculation. But there’s no question that Patrick’s achievement certainly captured the interest of the national media. It’s been huge news and, again, NASCAR has benefited from it.
As you well know, there were two other “feel good” stories before Vegas.
There was 20-year-old Trevor Bayne’s victory in the Daytona 500 which gave the nation an improbable story. Bayne was, and is, a media darling. He was the subject of broadcasts and news stories from outlets that otherwise wouldn’t have given NASCAR a second look. He remains so. Yet another broadcast will feature him when Fox airs a Daytona 500 special on March 13.
He attracted youngsters – a much-needed demographic for NASCAR – who have treated him like a rock star.
And for the old-line fans, Bayne’s victory propelled the venerated Wood Brothers Racing, which has been in existence for over 60 years, back into the spotlight with is first win since 2001 and first at Daytona since 1976. That in itself is a “feel good” story.

Jeff Gordon’s victory at Phoenix wouldn’t have been big news if he had been the routine winner he once was. But he hadn’t gone to victory lane in 66 races, nearly two years.

That Gordon broke his losing streak provided much more interest in what happened at Phoenix than it might have otherwise received. Simply put, it was another highly newsworthy “feel good” story.

Reality dictates that NASCAR can’t reap the fortune of positive national attention week after week. Circumstances, which can always change, will determine that.

But, so far, I think fate has been very kind – and helpful.

Thanks To Martin Odds Beaten At Vegas – Once, Only Once

I am not much of a gambler but I admit that each time a race at Las Vegas rolls around I like to check out the driver odds. It’s kinda fun to learn what the bookies think.
I’ve discovered they have a pretty good idea of what’s going on – at least if the posted odds are any evidence. I checked ‘em out a day ago and really didn’t find anything unusual.
For example, Jimmie Johnson was the favorite at 9-to-2 and, given that he’s won four of the last six races at Vegas, that’s logical. Carl Edwards was 15-to-2, Kyle Busch was 6-to-1, Jeff Gordon 7-to-1, Denny Hamlin 11-to-1 and Tony Stewart 12-to-1.
At the other end, there were several drivers listed at 300-1, among them Landon Cassill, Andy Lally, Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell. Well, that’s not really surprising, is it?
If I had some spare money, I think I might have put it on Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne. Burton was listed at 25-to-1 and Kahne at 22-to-1. I think they’ve got better shots at victory than the bookies think.
Of course, I realize the odds will change by race day. They always do.
They did in 1998, when NASCAR came to Vegas for the first time, but only after some of us made some good money.
At the time a few motorsports writers – the older guys – had been to Vegas more than once. We’d leave for the race at Riverside, Calif., a few days early and drive over to Sin City, only to return to California practically broke and with severe lack of sleep.
In ’98, however, the entire NASCAR press corps descended on Vegas. While it certainly anticipated covering a new race at a new venue, the appeal of experiencing all the city had to offer – particularly gambling – was greater.
A group of us had already devised a plan. As soon as we checked into our hotel the first thing we’d do would be to head for the casino’s Sport Book. There we would get the driver odds and make our bets.
We checked into The Mirage, went to our rooms and threw down our luggage. Then we beat feet for the Sports Book.
We saw the driver odds. We were delighted because what we saw provided proof of our theories.
We figured the bookies wouldn’t know all that much about NASCAR and perhaps even less about the drivers. It followed, we reasoned, that the odds would be somewhat askew.
And they were. Dale Earnhardt and Gordon were the favorites, no surprise there, but listed at 15-to-1 were Mark Martin and Jeff Burton, then teammates at Roush Fenway Racing. Between them they had won seven races in 1997, all but one on tracks of a mile or more in distance. Vegas was a 1.5-mile facility.
“Guys,” I said, “those odds are too high for those two. Let’s pounce on it.”
They eagerly agreed and we placed out bets. We put $10 each on Martin and Burton.
Real high rollers, weren’t we? Please remember we were sports writers, not oil barons.
At the track, I sidled up to Burton and said, “Hey, I put some money down on you.”
“Don’t jinx me!” he hissed.
“I put some down on Mark, too,” I said.
“We’re ruined!”
Dale Jarrett, driving a Ford for Robert Yates Racing, won the pole. Martin took the seventh starting position while Burton could do no better than 15th.
“Good lord, I’ve jinxed him,” I thought. I made it a point to stay away from him for the rest of the weekend.
As race day approached the odds at the Sports Book changed dramatically. Jarrett was listed as one of the favorites while Martin and Burton both dropped to 5-to-1. The oddsmakers had gotten wise.
The race couldn’t have gone better for those of us who had leapt on the long odds for Martin and Burton.
Martin led 87 laps, more than any other driver, and beat Burton, who led 37 laps, to the finish line by 1.605 seconds. It was a Roush sweep. In fact, the team’s two other drivers, Ted Musgrave and Chad Little, finished among the top 10.
When the checkered flag fell a few of us were giddy. We were rich! Well, at least by our standards. And, no, we did not cheer in the press box.
We all swore we were going to keep our winnings. When you get ahead at Vegas that’s the time you should quit.
Of course, we didn’t.
My profits were soon returned to The Mirage. I left Vegas practically broke and in severe need of sleep.
I told myself there was always next year.
When it comes to Vegas, I’ve told myself that same thing for many years.

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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