Lewis Hamilton: NASCAR Dream Is A Compelling Fantasy

Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon at the Homestead Chase finale'.

Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon at the Homestead Chase finale’.

Even for the avid fans that only track with NASCAR, Lewis Hamilton is a recognized star. At the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Race that concluded the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamilton made a cameo drop-in with cameras shadowing him throughout the garage.

Having already sewn-up his third Formula One World Championship, Lewis Hamilton prepared for the final race of the F1 season in Abu Dhabi race by spending the off-weekend stateside in Miami in order to support Jeff Gordon’s quest for a fifth NASCAR Championship, which fell short in his final career race.

Most notably at Homestead, Hamilton signaled his aspirations to perhaps follow in Gordon’s footsteps someday when he stated, “It was a really cool event; I hope I get to do one (race) one day.” According to Gordon, Hamilton was filled with questions about NASCAR.

For Hamilton, he would surely have to get past the little matter of a pay cut, which he probably could afford given his career earnings already. Reportedly, the 30-year-old Hamilton earns approximately $42 million dollars per year under his just renewed three-year deal with Mercedes AMG Petronas, which is multiples higher than a NASCAR star typically makes.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the highest paid athletes in the world having just inked a three year $140 million dollar salary from Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the highest paid athletes in the world having just inked a three year $140 million dollar salary from Mercedes.

However, Hamilton has continued to drop suggestive nuggets. Earlier in August, London’s Daily Mirror also reported that Hamilton hinted that he wouldn’t rule out eventually trying his hand at NASCAR in an actual event.

Moreover, in a June 2011 Mobil 1 promotional event, Hamilton got a little sampler of NASCAR when he swapped rides with three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart for a day at Watkins Glen International.

Hamilton jumped behind the wheel of a NASCAR stocker weighing more than two times as much as his F1 car. Hamilton fondly recalls that “Tony was an excellent teacher and I quickly found a good rhythm. Those cars are raw and powerful! They are fantastic fun to drive.”

At the same time, Hamilton might even enjoy escaping the politics of the pre-determined team marching orders that seem more obvious among F1 teams than within NASCAR mega-teams.

This prototype for an F1 driver transition has already been tested. Back in 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya (at the time, F1 driver for Williams BMW) and Jeff Gordon traded places, taking turns driving speed demonstration laps around the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as another Mobil 1 promotion in advance of the Brickyard 400.

Fast forward three years later to 2006, and Juan Pablo Montoya left F1 for a NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in a relationship that spanned eight seasons. Alas, Montoya had a mostly up-and-down NASCAR career, and was not able to capitalize on early breakthroughs such as his win at Sonoma in 2007.

Lewis Hamilton: Three time Formula One Champion.

Lewis Hamilton: Three time Formula One Champion.

NASCAR certainly wants to be taken serious on the international stage. Illustratively, this week Toyota is pulling out all the stops in celebrating its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship earned by Kyle Busch, with Toyota Racing’s President and General Manager David Wilson calling it “Toyota’s singular greatest achievement in motorsports.”

And Hamilton is undoubtedly a global celebrity, as well as an avid fan of American culture. Hamilton would have no trouble finding a sponsor to back a one-off NASCAR ride given the longer duration of the NASCAR season, or even a complete changeover should he decide he has accomplished everything he has sought in F1.

Yet some NASCAR narrow-minded loyalists have already taken to social media to critique such a possibility. The challenges fall into two buckets: Either Hamilton would not have success in NASCAR (pointing at other open wheel drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, or the brief NASCAR truck tenure of Kimi Raikkonen during his F1 sabbatical); or that Hamilton would not culturally “fit”, because his has too much bling, too much attitude, and too much reliance on F1’s superior technology.

However, all sports are competing for eyeballs and the almighty entertainment dollar. And entertainment is nothing more than a business that requires investment and return. Having an F1 champion, worldwide superstar, and dynamic celebrity take his shot at NASCAR can only serve to expand the pie and draw more eyeballs to the sport, if only for the curiosity factor. Occasionally, NASCAR fans complain that certain drivers are “too vanilla.” While I don’t agree with such assessments, there can be no doubt that a star like Hamilton trying his hand at NASCAR certainly wouldn’t be vanilla.

And the cross-pollination and racing exchange would only broaden motorsports’ overall exposure, while breaking down the parochial stereotypes surrounding NASCAR as a sport full of “moonshiners”.

Hamilton to NASCAR? My retort is: “Now that would be some quintessential racing, so boys, have at it!”

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

 

Kyle Busch Crowned Champion in Candyland Chase, What’s Next?

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

With a season that began in a hospital room and a fear that he might never race again, Kyle Busch stood tall as King Kandy at Homestead-Miami, with the final lap call that “The checkered flag goes to Kyle Busch, and the Sprint Cup Championship goes to Kyle Busch!”

Sidelined for the initial 11 races of the season because of a broken right leg and left foot sustained in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Daytona race crash in February, Kyle Busch finished off one of the most remarkable comebacks in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, with it, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after eleven seasons in the sport.

Busch, piloting the M&M’s Racing Crispy Camry, delivered a plethora of “firsts” by winning the season finale. In additional to his inaugural Championship, Busch brought home his first win ever in a Chase playoff race, the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing, the first title for his long-time sponsor Mars/M&M’s after 25 years in the sport, and the first title for his rookie crew chief Adam Stevens.

Shrewdly, Kyle Busch matured this season and realized that he could not get it done on his own, proclaiming “I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we did if it wasn’t for this injury.” During Busch’s comeback, he showered accolades on his crew chief Stevens. “He’s obviously a great leader of this team,” Busch said. “I love him to death. He’s done a really good job, and obviously we’re having fun doing what we’re doing.” That’s stellar praise from a turbulent driver who hasn’t always a solid rapport with his previous crew chiefs.

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David  Graham)

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Many were surprised by Busch’s resurgence and patience to overcome the turmoil and physical challenges of his comeback. Given his prior success in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series and his self-proclaimed boast that he was “King of the Minors”, the only question mark that remains is how many future titles Busch will capture now that he has finally delivered on the promise of his wheelman talents and demonstrated an appreciation for the collective contribution of his team and partners to his success.

Remarkably, NASCAR closed out a drama-laden second year of its contemporary elimination-style Chase playoff, with the four surviving Championship contenders once again battling up-front in the final laps and facing the necessity to finish first to both close out the season-ending race and capture the Sprint Cup crown. As reigning 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick finished second 13 times this year, including the final race at Homestead, and that still was not enough to secure the title.

The NASCAR Chase Championship playoff seems to have elevated the engagement of fans, with the both of its last two races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami being sold-out; as well, the Homestead TV ratings delivered the highest overnights since 2005. So will the storybook finish leave NASCAR fans wanting even more in 2016? As the sport heads to the offseason, NASCAR must continue its metamorphous into a more exhilarating product, inculcate its emerging young stars, and showcase innovative technologies to help revitalize its aging fan base, by attracting new (read younger) fans with shorter attention spans. Amid a plethora of entertainment options, NASCAR remains at a critical inflection point to stay relevant as it looks towards the 2016 season by resolving several thorny matters:

  • Acquiring a New Title Sponsor for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Sprint, and its merged predecessor Nextel, have been the entitlement sponsor of NASCAR’s top series since 2004, so this selection entails a monumental investment and long-term commitment, and is critical to the sport’s continued vitality in staying relevant to its mainstream audience.

Whoever the NASCAR Series title sponsor will be, substantial time will be required to develop customer activation programs, establish corporate on-track hospitality, and build a collective marketing/branding campaign, so NASCAR must move quickly to vet and secure a new partner. At the same time, the dollar investment by a Corporate partner is nothing to sneeze at; only a finite number of companies have the financial resources to be willing to spend anywhere from $75 million to $100 million per season. Ideally, a forward-looking technology company (Apple, Google, Amazon – are you listening?) flush with cash would be a great partner, particularly to showcase the integration of technology into the sport.

  • Success in Implementing the Low Downforce Aero Package. For 2016, NASCAR has adopted a new low downforce aero spec with the expectation that the racing will be tilted back in the hands of drivers. Now, as race teams prepare for 2016 and build a strong baseline of data, the fan anticipation is that the racing will be even better (meaning closer with more passing).

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

Moreover, with the upfront lead time, the new low downforce rules should allow Goodyear to dial-in tire combinations for each track that complement the new package and produces more fall-off, which hopefully leads to more passing. A softer tire, like the one built for Darlington, required drivers to manage their tire while slipping and sliding all over the track. If the new Aero package does not deliver better on-track competition, the Chase drama itself will not sustain the growth of the NASCAR franchise.

  • Elevating Brand Identity for XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. Both series are struggling with attendance and sagging ratings, particularly at stand-alone events not partnered with a Cup race. This weekend, with Roush Fenway Ford driver Chris Buescher only needed to finish 14th to clinch the second-tier XFINITY Series Championship, we got a mostly ho-hum race as Sprint Cup drivers dropped down to whip up on the rest of the field.

Both of these Series have already slashed allowable entries in each race (from 43 to 40 in XFINITY and 36 to 32 in Trucks) to weed out uncompetitive, poorly funded teams and ideally improve the on-track racing and available purse money.

In both the XFINITY and Truck Series, a champion is still determined via a season-long points system. Might it be a time for a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship type of system to decide the Champion in these series? Apparently, NASCAR thinks so, with its Official Fan Council of 16,000 members receiving an opinion survey in the past two weeks to float this idea, including a suggestion of restricting regular Sprint Cup Drivers from participating during the playoffs in these two series.

  • Promoting Future Stars and Technologies to Capture the Youth Demographic. NASCAR has a bright crop of talent coming up through the ranks, but now more than ever Sprint-cup rides are limited by sponsorship dollars. Nevertheless, several drivers are breaking through this coming year, including Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both of whom come with renowned racing pedigrees and are proving to be the total package.

Elliott, 19, is stepping into the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports ride vacated by Jeff Gordon, while Blaney, 20, will run for the Wood Brothers (with support by Ford Performance and a technical alliance with Team Penske). These two young guns have both won races in NASCAR’s lower divisions and present a perfect opportunity for NASCAR to showcase a meaningful battle for the 2016 Rookie of the Year, as well as a potential breakthrough berth in the Chase.

As well, to broaden its appeal to technology savvy fans, NASCAR is exploring ways to digitally deliver its product, taking fans more into the cockpit and chatter, with the 2016 introduction of the “digital dash”. This customizable dashboard of 16 preset screens is a great way to immerse fans in the driver experience, and the sooner the better. In a sport where it is hard to connect to what the driver is experiencing in the cockpit, fans will benefit from deeper access to more comprehensive real-time data, along with expanded digital platforms to access in-car race broadcasts. The NBCSN HotPass simulcast this weekend was a great starting point, offering a four way split screen of each Championship contender, along with live race communication between drivers and crew.

On our holiday wish list, we hope that NASCAR leads the way in reinvigorating its product with an improved level of on-track competition, promoting new stars with an uncompromising and fresh mindset, and capitalizing on emerging technologies to inclusively bring fans into the cockpit. Otherwise, the waning interest in America’s showcase racing series does not bode well for the fortunes of any of America’s besieged racing series, including the Verizon IndyCar and TUDOR United Sports Car series.

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

Edwards Emerges As Man Of Character And Certain Future Contender

Carl-Edwards

Carl Edwards may have been very disappointed over losing the 2011 championship by such a close tiebreaker margin to Tony Stewart, but he made a very strong effort at Homestead-Miami and emerged as a gracious loser.

Carl Edwards may not have won the 2011 Sprint Cup championship, but when the season ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway, not only was his reputation as one of NASCAR’s best drivers re-enforced, he also earned respect as a gracious, magnanimous loser.

No competitor in any sport likes to lose. But how he or she reacts in defeat speaks volumes about character.

Those who respond with dignity are recognized as athletes with high character and maturity. As a result they earn respect from fans and media alike. So it is with Edwards.

Edwards was clearly disappointed after he lost the championship to Tony Stewart in what is now the closest finish in NASCAR history.

But rather than rage in defeat, Edwards did two other things. He praised Stewart’s performance, adding that the Stewart-Haas driver was determined and mentally tough.

He also said that, while he was disappointed, he had no regrets. He was satisfied that he and his Roush Fenway Racing team had done as much as possible – and that he eagerly awaited 2012 and the opportunity to win the first championship of his career.

“My guys did a great job,” Edwards said. “We pushed Tony to the end and that is all I got. That is as hard as I can drive. I think it is really important to
give Tony the credit. Those guys did a good job.

 

“I will go home and work harder for next year and be back and make it just as hard on them, hopefully harder.”

Stewart’s victory margin was as close as it could possibly be, since he and Edwards finished with 2,403 points apiece. It came down to the tiebreaker, which was the most victories during the season.

Stewart had five; Edwards only one.

Remarkably, all five of Stewart’s victories came in the Chase. He started the “playoff” ranked ninth among the 12 contenders and, given that he hadn’t won all season, was convinced he wouldn’t be a factor in the championship battle.

But Stewart surprised everyone as he won the first two races in the Chase and rose to No. 1 in points. In the space of two weeks, he rose from self-described pretender to contender.

A week later, Stewart took it on the chin, as he finished 25th at Dover and fell to third in points.

Edwards took over second place on the basis of three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third at Dover.

Although no one knew it at the time a trend was being established. Edwards maintained his role as a challenger through consistency. He never finished worse than 11th throughout the Chase.

Stewart, meanwhile, could not match Edwards’ level of consistency. He wound up outside the top 10 in two of three races following his consecutive victories.

Edwards was the points leader after Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, and Stewart was in fourth place, 19 points back.

Stewart then again won twice in succession, at Martinsville and Texas. Edwards, however, held on to the points lead with consistent performances.

He was just three points ahead. The stage was set for the improbable and historical finish.

What makes the final three races of the year so competitively special in this year’s championship fight is that neither Edwards nor Stewart ever faltered.

Neither gave way to the other. It was like a heavyweight championship contest in which two bloodied fighters slugged each other mercilessly – but would not go down.

When Stewart won at Texas, Edwards finished second. Edwards hit back with a runnerup finish at Phoenix that was just one position ahead of Stewart.

The final round of the fight came at Homestead-Miami where Edwards maintained his three-point advantage.

No one really bothered to do the math in order to explain any potential championship scenarios. It was simple, really. For either driver to win regardless of what the other did he had to win – repeat, he HAD to win.

Homestead-finish

Stewart took the checkered flag 1.3 seconds ahead of Edwards. It marked the third time in the last three races of the Chase that the two had finished a mere one position apart. Stewart's five wins in the Chase propelled him to his third career title.

The race itself was the perfect example of how Stewart and Edwards had performed in the Chase.

Stewart overcame adversity. Early in the race his grille was busted and work in the pits eventually relegated him to a far back as 40th place.

It could have been over. However, Stewart rebounded again, mounting a determined effort to return to the head of the pack.

Which he did. It was reported that in his charge to the front Stewart passed 116 cars.

 

He also came back from an incident in the pits when an air gun broke and forced a two-tire change instead of four – which, again, meant the loss of track position.

Edwards remained the steady, unyielding force he had been throughout the Chase. He dominated, leading more laps than any other driver, and seemed well on his way to his third Homestead victory in four years.

Simply put, he repeated just about everything he had done earlier to put him at the cusp of a championship.

Stewart’s efforts were rewarded on lap 232 when he inherited the lead after Brad Keselowski was forced to pit. Four laps later Edwards moved into second place.

That set up the race-closing duel that ended when Stewart won by 1.3 seconds over Edwards. It marked the third straight time the two had finished a race separated by a single position.

The tiebreaker made the difference. Stewart’s unexpected five-victory surge in the Chase made him the champion.

“The only good thing about tonight
is that we didn’t make any mistakes, Edwards said. “We didn’t mess up and we didn’t beat ourselves. We made Tony and those guys come out and beat us and
they did. Congratulations to him. He is the champion and he earned it.

“I learned a ton, a lot about myself and competition at this level, and I will be ready to battle it out just like this every year if I get the opportunity.”

Oh, he will. I think it’s inevitable.

There’s an old saying in racing that goes, “In order to win a championship, first you must lose one.”

Many times, not always, that has held true.

If it does so again, it could mean that when it comes to a first career title, Carl Edwards will most certainly earn it.

 

Tony Stewart Outguns Carl Edwards


Tony Stewart out-gunned, out-duelled, and just plain old out-drove Carl Edwards to win the Sprint Cup Championship in NASCAR. Stewart fought his way through the pack twice on Sunday at Homestead Speedway in South Florida. It’s the first NASCAR Championship to be settled by a tie-breaker.

With New Sponsor And Increased Confidence, Things Are Good For Stewart

 

Stewart

Tony Stewart announced that his Stewart-Haas Racing team has received new sponsorship for this year and next from Quicken Loans, which will serve as a primary backer for Ryan Newman in 2012. It's all going well for Stewart, whose win at Martinsville put him just eight points behind Carl Edwards with three races remaining.

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Right now things are going along swimmingly well for Tony Stewart.

Four days ago he won the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The victory propelled him into second place in the point standings, just eight points behind leader Carl Edwards.

There are just three races left in the Chase for the 2011 title and more than a few predict that it all could be settled between Edwards and Stewart at the last event of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As pleasing as all that might be for Stewart the driver, perhaps now he is as equally satisfied as Stewart the team owner.

On Tuesday, Stewart announced that Quicken Loans would join Stewart-Haas Racing as a primary sponsor for the No. 39 Chevrolets driven by Ryan Newman and an associate on the No. 14 Chevys raced by Stewart.

Quicken will be Newman’s primary sponsor for nine races in 2012, coming on board with the U.S. Army, slated for 21 events and Tornados, which could be the principal backer for as many as five more.

It’s anticipated that Stewart Haas will make at least two more sponsor announcements in the future.

For any NASCAR team to acquire new financial support is a significant achievement. Sponsorship is the lifeblood of every organization and it has not been easy to gain in the last few years, largely because of the sagging economy.

As a result some organizations have gone out of business while others – make that several others – have had to enact massive layoffs.

It’s a situation that continues today and has already affected the NASCAR landscape. Two of Sprint Cup’s most powerful teams – Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing – will likely be reduced from four teams to three because of a lack of sponsorship.

Nearly all organizations now have multiple sponsorships for their teams. This allows them to implement the competitive budgets they need without having to pitch one company for full-season financial support.

Where single sponsorships were once common, they are now prohibitively expensive and a very hard sell.

“There is still a loot of value in NASCAR and announcements like we made today prove that,” Stewart said. “But the economy is tough. I always talk to sponsors about how aggressive our team is. We are young and we’re able to step outside the box. Some of the organizations which have been around a long time kinda get in the mode of, ‘This is who were are and this is how we do it.’

“I don’t think we are stuck in that rut. We find creative ways to take what potential sponsors’ goals and objectives are and make it work for them.

“It’s nice to have multiple cars to work with. Ryan’s car has not had a single season-long sponsor and that makes it very appealing to that partner that doesn’t necessarily want spend all the money it takes to sponsor one car for one year. They can share.

“We saw that a couple of years ago with the No. 88 team (Hendrick Motorsports with partner sponsors Amp Energy Drink and the National Guard). That arrangement made things very attractive for other sponsors.”

There’s no doubt that Stewart’s victory at Martinsville enhanced his team’s value and made it more rewarding for its present sponsors with increased appeal to potential new ones.

“NASCAR racing is a performance-based industry all the way around,” Stewart said. “Whether you are on the competition side or the business side, it’s very important to win races.

“But it’s also important to be able to figure out things outside the box and not just about asking partners to write checks. It’s about how they can use the sport to grow their business.

“It is still every bit as difficult as it was two years ago when the economy fell off. We talk about the competition on the track but it’s just as tough off the track. It’s very competitive today and that is what makes having an announcement like this one very special.”

While Stewart the businessman has already achieved a measure of success, he will play a different role in the championship hunt.

It will be Stewart the competitor that gets the job done on the track. The native of Columbus, Ind., knows exactly when to make the identity change; when to put on the game face.

“I’ll put it on Thursday like I always do,” Stewart said. “I’ve been in this sport long enough to know where and when to put the right focus.”

Stewart’s win at Martinsville bolstered his, and his team’s, confidence largely because they were successful at a track on which routinely they haven’t performed well.

Stewart was so elated with the victory, and how he stood in the Chase, he suggested Edwards would be so worried he would suffer a lack of sleep.

Stewart maintains those sentiments and admits increased confidence has a lot to do with that.

“At Martinsville we had a car that, after 200 laps, looked like it was going to be one or two laps down at the end of the day,” he said. “It didn’t and that’s what gives us the sense of confidence.

“We are through the Talladegas and the Martinsvilles and now we are going places where I feel like we can control our own destiny.

“It’s nice to know that you don’t have to rely on anyone else having problems. It’s nice to know we can control our own destiny.

“It’s an awesome position to be in right now.”

Stewart feels his team can do very well at the three upcoming tracks – Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

“Everybody in the organization has worked hard. It’s not like we’ve done something different,” said Stewart, whose three victories this year have all come in the Chase. “We are coming around to the tracks where we run well. At Martinsville, we were at a track where we don’t run well, and we got it turned around.
“But I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again over the next three weeks. You take it one day at a time. I said before the Chase started I didn’t think we were one of the teams that deserved to make it. I wasn’t on my list of guys I thought could win this thing.

“Now, we can win it. But we still have to go out and do our job. We have three tracks ahead that are really good for us and we look forward to running them.

“And that’s a perfect position to be in right now.”

 

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