NASCAR: Jeff Gordon Looks To Shine At The Southern 500

"Heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this is not the season that Jeff Gordon anticipated as part of his farewell tour, given the strong Championship resurgence he had last year."

“Heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this is not the season that Jeff Gordon anticipated as part of his farewell tour, given the strong Championship resurgence he had last year.”

Jeff Gordon is as much an extraordinary athlete as they come in any sport today. Now competing in his 24th and final season at the highest level of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Gordon, whose crossover appeal helped take NASCAR into the mainstream, has earned four career Cup championships, 92 points-paying race wins and 88 pole positions, with all of those accomplishments for his longtime car owner Rick Hendrick as the driver of the iconic #24.

Most assuredly a first-time ballot eligible Hall of Famer, there can be no argument that the “Rainbow Warrior” has been one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR, and I will confess that his entry into NASCAR piqued my passion for the sport, as both a fellow California native and an admirer of his talents and exemplary sportsmanship.

Heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this is not the season that Jeff Gordon anticipated as part of his farewell tour, given the strong Championship resurgence he had last year. During 2015, Gordon has added little to his impressive career statistics, having no wins and only three top 5 finishes, with only 12 races remaining. While he has shown some speed with 3 poles, his average finish of 16.5 has been much poorer. The #24 team is perplexed, and even Gordon has trouble placing his finger on it, attributing some difficulty to the combination of this year’s lower horsepower and varied aero packages that have rendered the #24 team’s historical track notebooks virtually obsolete.

Comparatively, in 2014, Gordon sprinted into Victory Lane four times and had fourteen top 5 finishes. Stretching back over the prior ten seasons, Gordon has averaged thirteen top 5 finishes per year (an astounding third of the entire season). All of this from a driver that has achieved at least one victory in 19 of his 23 full-time seasons.

2015 has been a tough year for the NASCAR veteran.

2015 has been a tough year for the NASCAR veteran.

After the June Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway where he struggled to a 14th place finish, Gordon exploded, “It’s intense out there. We had a car far better than what we finished…It seems like every time we have a car capable of either winning or running in the top five, some circumstances come about that take us out.” In the most recent Bristol night race, Gordon’s irritation was even more apparent, as he stormed off without a post-race interview, after having to pit unexpectedly for two loose wheels resulting in a discouraging 20th place finish. As a result, Gordon is now teetering in 14th position of the Chase cut-off of 16 eligible drivers, with only two races remaining in the regular season.

With the return to Darlington Raceway over the upcoming Labor Day weekend throwback, Jeff Gordon surely knows how to get it done at the “Track to Tough to Tame”, which is one of his best tracks statistically. His seven career wins are the most of any active driver, along with eight top 5’s in the last eleven races. As an added twist, Darlington will showcase the lower-downforce package, which combined with Darlington’s abrasive track surface, will surely put more control in the experienced drivers’ hands. Last seen at Kentucky Speedway, the revised aero package resulted in a solid performance for Gordon, as he started 3rd and finished 7th. Gordon was positive on his team’s Kentucky performance under the new package, remarking “There at the end, everything kind of came together. We got the car working really well, got a couple of good restarts and a good pit stop. It was a solid evening.”

So, what achievement would be more momentous in Gordon’s final season: Going out as a race winner or points racing deep into the Chase playoffs without a victory? The template for the latter approach was showcased last year by Ryan Newman, driver of the Caterpillar #31 car, who made it all the way to the final Championship 4 round without winning a single race the entire season. Right now, odds-making websites place the probability of Gordon advancing to the Championship 4 round at 8%, along with his odds of winning the Sprint Cup Championship outright at 1%, which means Jeff Gordon fans must really keep the faith that the “Drive for Five” championship quest is still alive.

From my vantage point, I would prefer to see Gordon close out his final year with at least one victory. While the revamped Chase playoff format brings tremendous energy, pressure, and drama, it is ultimately a contrived system intended to generate excitement during the final 10 races of the season. As a traditionalist, I have always been slightly troubled by the full reset of the season points in the final race of the year to determine the NASCAR Cup Champion, which introduces tremendous uncertainty into the outcome.

Conversely, the racer’s mindset is characteristically to go win any race where the driver straps on his or her helmet. Points racing, while effective, is simply an aftereffect of the racer’s competitive mindset to win. Most NASCAR drivers acknowledge that they would wreck just about anybody on the last lap to win a race. Captured eloquently by the iconic words of the immortal Dale Earnhardt, “The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car; it’s the one who refuses to lose.”

So what say you, NASCAR nation? Would you wish for Jeff Gordon to win at least one more race in the remaining 12 races of his 797 career starts? Or would you rather see him play defense, given the #24 team’s lackluster year so far, and points race in order to advance through as many Chase rounds as possible? For me, the answer is clear-cut, and the Southern 500 is a great opportunity to see the #24 get back to Victory Lane.

Gordon has received many tributes from the racetracks during his farewell tour. At Kentucky Speedway, Gordon received 24 bottles of trademark bourbon. That’s fine, but I’m wagering that Gordon would prefer to spray champagne in Victory Lane before his career comes to a close.

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

Despite Great Competition, NASCAR Must Still Deal With An Ongoing Problem


Paul Menard's victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after which he and his team got to "kiss the bricks," was one of the unexpected moments of 2011 that led it to become one of the most competitive, and historical, seasons in NASCAR's history. Menard was one of five first-time winners in the past season.

The sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing faces a familiar problem in 2012, one that has bedeviled it for the last three years.

However, that problem is certainly not the quality of its competition. For once NASCAR didn’t have to come up with obscure facts and figures to tout itself as the most competitive form of motorsports in this country – which, incidentally, is a claim it has made repeatedly over the years.

In 2011, there can be little argument that it was, indeed. And no one has to search high and low for statistics to prove it.

Now, I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. Not only was the past season highly competitive, it was also, in many ways, historical.

All it takes to understand that is a quick look at what happened and who made it happen.

There were 18 different winners in Cup racing, which matched those in 2002 and fell just one short of the record of 19 set in 2001.

Five of those winners won for the first time in their careers, and, to make this unprecedented, four of those winners were victorious in four of the circuit’s most prestigious races at three of its most prominent speedways.

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400.

Not one of these drivers was considered a victory candidate in any of these races – if, indeed, in any other.

That these relatively unheralded drivers won as they did for the first time – and all in one season – has never been done before in NASCAR.

And Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner when he was victorious on the road course at Watkins Glen.

It was routinely believed that if Australian Ambrose won in NASCAR it would be on a road course. That he did so was no surprise.

That may be, but judging from response, his victory enhanced NASCAR’s international appeal – at least in one part of the world. Ambrose is a hero in his native country.

The battle for the championship was like no other in NASCAR’s history.

It came down to a two-man war between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that wasn’t settled until after the final race of the season at Homestead.

Stewart won that race while Edwards finished second, yet another in a series of Chase races in which the two finished within a single position of each other.

The result was the first tie in points ever in NASCAR. Each had 2,403 points.

Stewart won with the tiebreaker – the most wins in a season. He had five, Edwards one.

But the championship drama goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply because Stewart won it in historically close fashion, it was also how he did so.

He started the 10-race Chase ninth in points without a single victory to his credit.

But once the “playoff” began Stewart surged like a tsunami. He won five races, rose quickly to No. 1 in points and, with four wins under his belt, was second when Homestead began, just three points in arrears to a remarkably consistent Edwards.

That set up the dramatic finish.

Stewart has to receive credit for one of the most impressive, come-from-behind runs for a title in NASCAR’s history.

Any decent statistician could put up some other numbers that would support the excellent competitiveness of the 2011 season – laps lead, most lead changes, cars running at the finish and such.

But I don’t believe they are needed. What has been presented here – and, I admit, earlier – should offer solid proof that NASCAR is in no way suffering when it comes to the quality of its competition.

Fact is, it’s thriving.

But, when it comes to being a business and not a sport, NASCAR and its teams are not thriving.

In 2008 this country, and the world, plunged into an economic disaster.

Stocks plummeted, banks failed, businesses folded, homes went into foreclosure and jobs were lost a thousand fold.

Nothing escaped, not even NASCAR. At the end of the 2008 season team members were laid off in droves. Other organizations folded. Sponsors, who suffered a loss of profits, pulled the plug on their NASCAR participation.

Sponsorship suddenly became a gift, not a given. Teams used to single-entity deals that brought in $20 million or more began to beg for limited schedule deals at reduced prices.

For those teams fortunate enough to have it, financial backing was acquired through multiple companies providing full support for 10-12 races here, 4-6 there and maybe even one or two.

And I think it is obvious that speedways suffered as well. Where they once were able to sell tickets with little difficulty, they now had to use creative public relations and marketing strategies to lure cash-strapped fans to come to their races.

It wasn’t easy. Empty grandstand seats prevailed.

I was one of many who said then that the economy was NASCAR’s biggest challenge. It remains so.

The economic malaise has not gone away. It hasn’t for the country and it hasn’t for NASCAR.

We already know of two teams that have ceased operations, both of them part of high-profile operations. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing no longer have four teams, they have three. A lack of sponsorship has caused that.

And the Roush team that features past champion driver Matt Kenseth is still searching for financial backing – as are several other organizations at one level or another.

Red Bull Racing, and its two-car operation, folded. I’ll be honest. The economy might have had something to do with that but I suspect politics might have played a larger role.

Regardless, after 2011, think of the number of racing jobs that have been lost – again.

At present NASCAR does not have as many well-funded, full-time teams now as it did at the start of 2011.

Its speedways still have to find the means to get folks to part with their dollars. After all, the joblessness rate is still high, companies continue layoffs or job elimination (including among the motorsports media), real estate values remain low and gasoline prices are volatile, among many other things.

The problems NASCAR faced after 2008 are still its major concerns as 2012 approaches.

But it is clear that, at least for one season, competition is at an all-time high. That is something that can potentially lures fans, encourage needed media attention and honestly establish NASCAR as something it has always claimed to be – the best in this country.

If what we saw in 2011 is matched, or approached, by what happens in 2012, that can only be good for NASCAR and its continuing challenge to sell itself, and its teams, to the public and corporate America amid a still struggling economy.

Menard’s Indy Victory Adds To Season’s Competitiveness

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has established itself as one of the most unique in many years for a couple of reasons:

It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.

This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?

Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.

The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.

Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.

Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.

After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.

They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?

The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.

Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.

Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.

While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.

Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.

Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.

They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.

If a team can utilize creativity only to a certain point it often cannot gain a sizable advantage over another. That, many suggest, is what we have now.

Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.

There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.

But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.

Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.

Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.

Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.

It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.

Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.

In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.

This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.

Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.

That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.

That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.

Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.


** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.

His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.

It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.

These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.

Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.

If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.


** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.

The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.

Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.

Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.

With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

Today’s All Star Race Is Yesterday’s Stroke Of Marketing Genius

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race takes place on May 21, it will be the continuation of a tradition that began with a bold announcement at the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York on Dec. 6, 1984.

At that time, Jerry Long, the CEO of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Co., and a man who enjoyed the spotlight, announced that his company was going to add to its existing support of what was then known as the Winston Cup Grand National Series.

First, Long said, the Winston Cup point fund would increase by $11.5 million over five years, starting in 1985. Then, a special $1 million bonus would be awarded to any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. The program would be known as the Winston Million.

Finally, a new “invitational” race would be conducted in 1985. It would be based upon an “all star” concept and would be known as The Winston.

The event would be open to 1984 winners only, meaning that a dozen drivers would be vying for their share of a $500,000 purse – with $200,000 going to the winner.

Long said the race would be long enough to have one pit stop but short enough to be known as the richest race per mile in all of motorsports.

As it evolved, it was was configured for 70 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We wanted to be sure the race was promoted properly,” Long said. “That’s what led us to Charlotte.”

Through its Winston brand, Reynolds had been supporting NASCAR since 1971, when it established the sport’s first meaningful point fund.

Some historians say that without Reynolds support NASCAR may have foundered into non-existence.

It turned out that Reynolds and NASCAR evolved into a relationship that allowed stock car racing to survive, and in some cases thrive, despite some poor economic times that included gas shortages and raging inflation.

By the mid 1980s, the country was back in full economic trim. People had money to spend and so did corporations, including Reynolds.

Reynolds decided to spend a helluva lot of it in NASCAR – and for good reason.

Reynolds was the only company in the United States that sponsored, entirely, a major professional sport. It thus had a singular benefit: Any money it spent promoting NASCAR would also, obviously, promote Reynolds’ products, especially Winston cigarettes. The two were bonded.

Essentially, Reynolds’ marketing departments became NASCAR’s marketing arm (I’m not sure NASCAR even had one, officially).

Reynolds bought magazine, newspaper, radio and TV ads trumpeting NASCAR races. Certainly the sanctioning body and its tracks benefitted, but so did Reynolds.

Reynolds even went around and painted tracks read-and-white, Winston’s colors, which further increased product recognition. So did free cigarette giveaways at speedways, which Reynolds did as long as the government allowed, show car programs, organized driver media appearances and much more.

But by 1984, Reynolds, flush with money, realized it hadn’t done enough. With free reign to do whatever it wished in NASCAR – and that is not to say it did not fully consult or cooperate with the sanctioning body – Reynolds realized it had a chance to create marketing programs unheard of in other professional sports.

And with The Winston and the Winston Million, that is exactly what it did. Among major U.S. corporations that participated in professional sports, none did so on such an impressively large scale as R. J. Reynolds.

The Winston was not the only invitational, or even “all star” event in NASCAR’s history. In 1961, ’62 and ’63, “all star” races were held at Daytona using the same format as The Winston.

In 1979, Anheuser-Busch started the Busch Clash at Daytona, an invitational race that was open only to the previous season’s pole winners. It continues today as the Budweiser Shootout – with many format changes, of course.

Speaking of formats, the one for the first The Winston was simple. A dozen winners from the 1984 season – Cale Yarborough, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Richard Petty, Ricky Rudd, Tim Richmond, Dale Earnhardt, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison and Geoff Bodine – were entered.

Set at 70 laps, the race’s mandatory pit stop had to come between laps 30 and 40. Other than that it was simply a quick run to the checkered flag.

Waltrip won the race by 0.31-second over Gant. As soon as Waltrip crossed the finish line his engine blew in a plume of smoke, which sparked the notion that Junior Johnson, Waltrip’s team owner, had run an oversized power plant.

It was said Waltrip was instructed to blow the engine by stomping on the clutch. That done, any post-race inspection by NASCAR was, of course, impossible.

Thus the first of many “all star” race controversies was born.

Reynolds left NASCAR after 2003. Over the years the sponsor of the “all star” race, and its format, have changed many times.

But it remains as it was conceived – a special event that showcases NASCAR’s best competitors while, at the same time, offering stock car racing and its sponsors a unique marketing platform.


Regan Smith Wins: Busch Harvick Brawl Meaningless

Regan Smith’s victory at Darlington this past weekend shouldn’t be overshadowed by a brawl that wasn’t. Pushing, shoving, cursing. Big deal. Regan Smith, a Mike Mittler graduate, beat his friend Carl Edwards in a Green/white finish.

’62 Darlington: I Won But At Midnight, I Lost

The 1962 Southern 500 might have been the toughest race I ever ran.

The temperatures were scorching hot on Labor Day at Darlington Raceway of that year. The heat took a toll on both tires and drivers. There were several crashes due to blown tires and many drivers were on the verge of heat exhaustion.

Ok, let’s stop right there. That awful setting I described isn’t going to be anything like it is for this year’s Showtime Southern 500, set for Saturday night and under the lights.

The weather will, of course, will be much cooler – great for fans, competitors and fans alike. The track has been repaved and configured, which isn’t bad for tires, either, and should make for some much closer racing.

Wish all this had happened during my time. I’d have loved to see what I could do.

Frankly, I didn’t do much at that old, crusty Darlington, the one at which heat played such a role and the track surface was so rough it reminded me of a supersized cheese grinder.

But like every other driver, I wanted to win at Darlington. We all knew that if we beat that old lady we had really done something.

Back to that hot Labor Day of 1962. I mentioned how heat took its toll on tires. Sure enough, about midway through the race we experienced problems on Ray Fox’s Dodge and crashed midway through the race.

We spent two laps in the pits getting the fenders pulled back to prevent tire rub.

Turns out, NASCAR posted me the leader over the last one-fifth of the race. Then I was declared the winner, with Marvin Pinch second, Larry Frank third, Jim Paschal fourth and Richard Petty fifth.

I remember that old’ Frank was not a happy man. His Ford was running on a stream of sparks – he had lost a wheel – when he parked it on the grass just across from the press box.

Frank said he was the winner and that I wasn’t even on the lead lap.

Lee Petty filed a protest and Frank, did, too. He was so tired and blistered he had to go back to his hotel room.

It was up to NASCAR to deal with the situation.

Until it did, heck, I was still the winner and through I rightfully should be.

During the post-race interview I was asked what I was going to do with my winner’s share of the money, about $20,000.

“Shoot, I’m going to build more chicken houses on my farm,” I answered.

Well around midnight, NASCAR came back with the results. Frank was listed the winner, with me second, Marvin third, David fourth, Richard fifth and Paschal sixth.

Reckon I counted the chicken houses before they were built, huh?

NASCAR went to great pains to show me where the mistake was made. And they had a fairly convincing case.

But what upset me was NASCAR not catching the error sooner. They showed me in first place a long time. If I’d known I actually was running second to Larry, I think I could have caught him and passed him pretty easily.

Well, that wasn’t the case. It all ended up as one of the weirdest races I ever lost – and at Darlington, no less.

Three years later, I got a measure of satisfaction at the tough old track. I won the Rebel 500 – No protests about it.


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