Sonoma Proves Road Racing Deserves Chase Berth

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart’s return to the winner’s circle at Sonoma Raceway was the feel good story of the season for many fans, as the world of Twitter went crazy with shots of Victory Lane, the last lap pass, and burning rubber. Many fans remained in the grandstand after the race to salute Smoke on his victory lap, instead of racing to the parking lots.

Most remarkably, the win virtually made Stewart a lock to earn a Sprint Cup Chase sweet sixteen playoff spot, such that he will be able to pursue a potential fourth NASCAR championship in his final season before retirement.

We saw the fire of Tony the competitor, who took an ordinary kind of car for the day, added a little bit of luck, and a final lap drive with grit to earn his 49th career Sprint Cup race win. Capturing the imagination of many, IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti tweeted after the race “Give a champion a sniff of a win and see what happens!!! Nice job, @TonyStewart.”

Upon reflection, Sonoma Raceway showcased even more critically the importance of adding a road course into NASCAR’s Chase Playoff, which is often critiqued for including too many “cookie cutter” 1.5 mile ovals where the cars are still heavily dependent on aerodynamics.

I’ve heard the excuses before, but sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and make it so. NASCAR needs to make it happen and move this schedule change to its front burner. Road course racing is popular, and NASCAR needs to capitalize on this resurgence we’ve seen across other racing series.

Road courses are rousing for the close quarters’ side by side racing, the inevitable bump and grind of taking different lines to get around your competitors, and the need for crew chiefs to make timely strategy calls. Drivers can really showcase their talents on courses that are less aero-dependent.

Considering Sonoma in particular, this lush Northern California trip to the wine country offers the opportunity to connect with flush tech companies that dominate Silicon Valley. No doubt many global brands headquartered locally were closely measuring the relevance of the NASCAR brand and the platform that the sport could offer for showcasing technology and eyeballs. Microsoft is currently a key affiliate partner with NASCAR in terms of providing technology and communications for teams. As NASCAR expands it use of technology, video streaming, and social media, securing a premier tech company as an Entitlement sponsor to replace Sprint over the next 10 years could definitely offer a boost to NASCAR’s national image and cash flow.

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

From a competitive standpoint, today’s road courses at Sonoma Raceway, along with Watkins Glen International 2,700 miles to the east, are inherently unpredictable where an underdog can win (not just relying on the usual suspects), which opens up wider fan interest in the race outcome. At Sonoma, Tony Stewart took an ordinary car and achieved an extraordinary outcome. Similarly, AJ Allmendinger, who qualified on the front row, and showed strength to win the race, had his pit crew blow the final money stop, thereby basically cost him a shot at the win.

Road course racing features the importance of strategy, with a gusty off-cycle pit call by Stewart’s rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz positioning Stewart to chase the checkered flag over the final 24 laps. Stewart may not have had the best car, but he was given the chance to win by timely strategy.

Sonoma Raceway has been on the NASCAR’s premier schedule since 1989, so many of the current generation of drivers have grown up learning how to craftily handle these cars on such circuits. Spiritly, many NASCAR drivers, such as Allmendinger, Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. having trained their skill sets in other road course series. The days of a Road Course “ringer” showing up in a part-time ride to steal the show has not happened in a decade.

As part of NASCAR’s grooming ladder, the NASCAR XFINITY Series showcases three road courses for NASCAR’s young guns to earn their chops. With career progression across NASCAR’s ladders, its seems shortsighted to only have two road course races in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series.

Prior to the current Chase elimination format, NASCAR determined its champion based on consistency in earning points, which perhaps supported the argument of not having a Chase road course. However, with the current “win and advance” Chase playoff format, a road course fits perfectly in amping up the excitement of a dramatic finish in crowning NASCAR’s champion.

No doubt that much of NASCAR’s schedule is “locked in” and would require substantial effort to shift around. But from my standpoint, forget the excuses, NASCAR needs to do everything to spice up the show, and a road course in the Chase would be a great start. Perhaps the idea will grow on NASCAR’s Chairman, given his taste in fine wines, such that we can raise a glass during a future October harvest.

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


 

NASCAR: Will Danica Patrick and Stewart Turn It Around in 2016?

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

The crew chiefs in NASCAR have begun to rival the drivers when it comes to silly season rumors, but unlike F1, you tend to know earlier who the crew chiefs will be. Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have brought in new crew chiefs for their respective cars.

Danica:

Patrick, who brings a whack of cash to the SHR organization is often vilified. On the other hand, there seems to be a reason as she changes crew and chiefs like red lights in Shanghai. She’s hard to work with is what most of my sources say. My sources who were close to her at one point tell me it’s the IndyCar effect: Most of the IndyCar drivers are used to working with engineers rather than old school crew chiefs.

Patrick has seemingly developed the attitude of the Diva. It’s a common occurrence in open-wheel: ‘It’s the car, not me.’ That’s something the drivers in IndyCar can get away with for only so long as everything they do in their cars is captured on software, so you can run, but you can’t hide from the dreaded software. It tells all.

Her former crew chief, Daniel Knost is heading for a new position in the SHR camp as manager of vehicle dynamics, Knost will oversee a number of the organization’s technical efforts, with a specific focus on track simulation and racecar performance.

The 36-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, has been a crew chief at SHR for two years, spending 2014 with the #41 team of Kurt Busch and 2015 with the #10 team of Patrick.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick

Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Childers remains as crew chief for the #4 team of Harvick and Tony Gibson remains as crew chief for the #41 team of Busch.

Don’t expect the dynamics to change as Patrick has a reputation for being the “Alonso” of the Cup Series. All one has to do is listen to her radio in snapshots from all of the races and you begin to see where the difficulty lies.

Maybe Billy Scott, the replacement for Knost, will have a better experience as the problem seems to lie in the chemistry department. Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The 38-year-old from Land O’ Lakes, Florida, comes to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) where since 2014 he was the crew chief for the No. 55 team.

Stewart:

It had to be a very difficult season for Stewart with injuries and legal battles all the while trying to remain relevant as a team owner. It was a hard road for Stewart who unlike Patrick blames himself and not the car. Stewart has always been a driver who would look from within to seek the answers as opposed to calling the car out.

That’s a rare quality, how many drivers do you know who would say: ‘It’s my fault, not the car’. It’s very rare in all types of motor racing, but an admirable quality nonetheless.

Look for Stewart to try and capitalize on the 2016 package which should see the cars as tough to handle given the new low-downforce rules. However Stewart has to buckle down and try and develop the chemistry with his new crew chief, Michael Burgarwicz.

Michael Bugarewicz has been promoted from race engineer on the #4 team to crew chief for the #14 team of Tony Stewart. The 33-year-old from Lehighton, Pennsylvania, replaces Chad Johnston, who has left SHR to pursue a new opportunity. Bugarewicz joined SHR in 2014 where in his role as race engineer, he helped Kevin Harvick secure his first Sprint Cup championship.

You have to wonder how Kevin Harvick let him go, but Tony has the final say and seems to know what he’s doing. Uncle Gene, not withstanding.

There’s not much to say about Tony Stewart except one has to hope that he can emulate Jeff Gordon’s retirement year. If the 2016 low-downforce cars suit him, he will be a factor for the Chase. Well, if the Chase does have an eraser change before Daytona.

Let’s hope the best for Tony as the, hopefully, looser cars will suit his driving style.

He needs a spark and a good performance to motivate him as the 2015 season took a toll on Smoke.

But Hey, Smoke rises-right?

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Stewart Should Settle In the Ward Lawsuit

Tony Stewart weathering the storm.

Tony Stewart weathering the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

According to an article from the LA Times in 1986:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwards Glad Tony Mad: Less Downforce Coming

Carl Edwards is thrilled at the further changes in the Cup car's handling.

Carl Edwards is thrilled at the further changes in the Cup car’s handling.

The 2015 Sprint Cup season has, so far, been better than expected in terms of Post Daytona races that have some excitement in them. What this means, if you know what to look for, is that the cars have become harder to drive. Less downforce.

Harder to drive means harder to run away with a race because you have less horsepower and less downforce to work with. However NASCAR needs, and intends, to take it one step farther.

It would be wonderful to take more downforce off of the cars before Texas Motor Speedway (Duck Commander 500). But, NASCAR has set a schedule for it that seems reasonable. The Tire tests this week at Charlotte, and upcoming tests April 13-15 at Kentucky and April 27-29 will deliver enough information that no one is blindsided by the changes. Those changes are scheduled 4 races from now at Charlotte.

Earnhardt credits the driver adjustable track bar adjustment for keeping him in the top 5 at Las Vegas.

Earnhardt credits the driver adjustable track bar adjustment for keeping him in the top 5 at Las Vegas.

That process has already begun, according to Carl Edwards from the Charlotte testing. He said:

“NASCAR, drivers, fans – we all want to see the best racing,” Carl Edwards said. “The question is how, exactly, do we get that? The way I understand it, Gene Stefanyshyn (NASCAR’s senior vice president for innovation and racing development) and everyone at NASCAR are trying to remove a little bit of downforce and make the cars race better.”

He added, “I’m hoping there’s more of that in the future. As you remove horsepower, there’s less time off the throttle and eventually, if you keep taking horsepower away and the teams keep finding more and more downforce, it will be impossible to pass. NASCAR has to stay ahead of that curve. They’re working on it.”

Track bar 101

Track bar 101

With removing downforce you do change the balance of the car and some drivers, most notably Tony Stewart, was having trouble coming to grips with it (no pun intended). He wasn’t at all happy, comparing the Sprint Cup cars to Xfinity Cup cars in a screaming team radio tirade at Las Vegas.

It isn’t hard to understand. If you remove 100 horsepower and then remove downforce, by way of a shorter rear spoiler, then you have effectively forced the driver to carry more momentum into the corner, but still force them to try and accelerate out of that corner quicker. This is something the Xfinity cars do, but with more downforce.

Some drivers are quick to catch onto it through suspension adjustment and others not so much. It requires a crew chief who can take a few swings at the set up during a race as the cars are now more susceptible to minor changes.

We saw evidence of that with drivers wildly adjusting their track bars as the conditions changed. This is a new rule as well, and they are driver adjustable.

NASCAR explains it this way: “The track bar is located underneath the rear of the car. By raising or lowering the right side of the bar, a driver can alter the position of the rear axle in relation to the car’s centerline.

Any changes affect the weight distribution of the car and how it moves through the corners on the track.”

Apparently in May, at the Sprint All-Star Race is where all of these changes will be fully implemented. That’s fine by us.

Driving these cars should be a challenge and require the driver to earn the nickname “Wheelman”.

Should Tony Stewart Leave the Drivers Seat?

Stewart hasn't had it his way for quite a while.

Stewart hasn’t had it his way for quite a while.

No one could blame Tony Stewart from doing a Michael Andretti and hanging up the  NASCAR helmet to run his multiple businesses. It has been evident that time and time again when a driver takes over his own organization, remaining in the seat and overseeing operations, it seldom works.

To be sure Smoke had a rough year in 2014 and 2015 hasn’t started out with a St. Patrick’s Day parade. He simply hasn’t seemed to recover from the Ward incident nor his broken leg. Added up, that mental stress coupled with running a business, along with a rogue partner in Gene Haas, is enough to distract anyone.

This is Sprint Cup. You are either on your very best game mentally, discarding virtually everything for the win and the Championship, or you’re just riding around. That’s not Tony Stewart. In the past he’s been all-in like a Jack Russell on steroids. Lately he’s been far more muted and ambivalent, or at least it appears so.

No one really knows what goes through a persons mind but the mental state of elite athletes are far more affected by their environment than regular folk. Pink Floyd famously crooned that “Quiet Desperation is the English Way” in the legendary “Dark side of the Moon” masterpiece. It’s not Tony Stewart’s way, not by a long shot. He doesn’t endure quietly.

This is a very complex man. He has a tough veneer but can make that toughness his core when he needs it. He’s a very compassionate man when he sees those suffering. He’s a private man who doesn’t normally make a spectacle of himself. He’s a business man who ISIS would not want to meet. They can hack away, but they wouldn’t want him bare knuckled on them.

Stewart getting ready for practice.

Stewart getting ready for practice.

So what has happened? Why are his performances in decline, and lets not sugarcoat it, they are. Yesterdays Las Vegas race was but one example. There are others.

The business that Tony Stewart controls and competes in is not a Donald Trump business model. You can only delegate so much in the professional auto racing world before everything begins to suffer.

The racing world is full of owner/drivers who failed. Stewart–Haas could be another if Smoke doesn’t take complete control of the situation.

Luckily Harvick is self sufficient. He had the years at Childress and some ownership years to know what to do and what not to do. He has pared himself down to a satellite team within a satellite team and it’s working.

Make no mistake, Smoke is a true talent. I was at the first IRL race where he lapped the field in about three laps, it was absurd. Myself and my former partner in crime, Rob D’Amico, partied in New York with him and his entourage when he won his second Championship. He was at his zenith. This guy works hard and he plays hard, however, anyone can succumb to overload and I believe that’s where Tony is. Overloaded.

Michael Andretti realized that there is life after racing. Jackie Stewart, Richard Petty, Roger Penske (who may be the best example of all) and Chip Ganassi all have made the decision that it was time, for whatever reason, to not ‘go gently into that good night’, but rather, reinvent themselves into a force of relevance in the auto racing world.

Stewart Haas Racing was never meant to be a one trick pony, but it appears to be in danger of becoming just that without a very strong leader at the helm. Stewart has proven that he can run a business and I believe that its time for him to make that decision.

Either take what time is left for him as a driver and race like hell until it ends, or step out and take control of the businesses. He can do either with no apologies to anyone.

He has made his point, but has he made his peace?

 

Changes: Personal And Professional Herald 2015 Season

Tony Stewart had a dismal 2014 season and afterward had a fifth surgery on the broken leg he suffered in 2013. Can he come back from adversity to have a good 2015 season?

Tony Stewart had a dismal 2014 season and afterward had a fifth surgery on the broken leg he suffered in 2013. Can he come back from adversity to have a good 2015 season?

As the short NASCAR Sprint Cup plows forward toward February, it’s not unusual for folks to speculate on what might happen in the coming season or, in some cases, before.

After all, many changes have taken place and others are anticipated. Make no mistake they will have their effect. The question is, in each instance, what will that be?

Several changes are technological and competitive in nature and some are personal. But they all pique our interest and, indeed, could have a bearing on what we see in 2015.

The obvious question is how will the rule changes for 2015 affect racing? If we go by the recent Goodyear tire testing at Charlotte, the answer is: We don’t know yet.

Some drivers felt there was little change in the feel and handling of the cars from 2014. Others said they noticed the cars were “more free,” indicating a loss of downforce.

Actually, no one will get a very good sense of what all the rule changes mean until they get some time on the track – and in actual competition.

Once that happens some teams will find the changes very beneficial while others will struggle, at least for a while. That’s the way it’s always been.

My prediction? Most of the rule changes, not all, are neither as dramatic nor as plentiful as they have been in the past. I think the issues they may create are going to be relatively small.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a terrific 2014 season with four victories, including the Daytona 500, and an eighth-place in the final point standings.

Kurt Busch is currently being investigated for an assault on his ex-girlfriend. This situation builds pressure because the results may determine the fate of his career.

Kurt Busch is currently being investigated for an assault on his ex-girlfriend. This situation builds pressure because the results may determine the fate of his career.

He was also named the Most Popular Driver, again, and was the winner of the prestigious National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contributions to racing.

He never had an inkling he would receive such an award.

However, Earnhardt Jr.’s on-track achievements were compiled under the direction of crew chief Steve Letarte. Letarte will not be back. He’s become a member of the NBA race broadcast crew.

Letarte’s replacement is Greg Ives. A former engineer for Jimmie Johnson, last season Ives was at Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports where he guided Chase Elliott to the Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) Series championship.

His pedigree sounds pretty darn good to me. And his familiarity with Hendrick Motorsports bodes well.

But you know how it works with a driver and a new crew chief. Nothing matters until they become good buddies and post good numbers.

Trust me, the “Junior Nation” will be watching.

Tony Stewart’s 2014 season was a black hole. Let’s put aside the tragic incident in New York – which Stewart will never forget.

Instead, there are questions about his health. Stewart suffered a broken leg in a 2013 Sprint Car accident and to see him limp around the garage area told us he was not fully recovered.

Stewart underwent a fifth operation, called routine, just weeks after the 2014 season ended.

Well, most likely because of the tragedy in New York and lingering physical shortcomings, in 2014 Stewart had the worst season of his career. He failed to win a race for the first time in 15 years.

Stewart Haas Racing is behind its driver and says he will be ready for 2015.

Really? He’s 43 years old and coming off an emotionally draining season and a fifth surgery.

That’s a lot to overcome. And it’s fair to say many will watch to see if Stewart can do it.

Let’s get even more personal.

Police are still investigating the charges that Kurt Busch assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 26 in Dover. A judge will decide on Dec. 16 if a restraining order should be issued against him.

It seems likely Busch will know his fate before the Daytona 500. NASCAR Chairman Brian France has stated no sanctions will be taken until police complete their investigation.

So Busch’s career is, in fact, in limbo. That has to be a nerve-wracking situation.

To tell the truth, it always is when your fate is in someone else’s hands.

More to come.

 

 

 

 

Finally Something Good For Newman, But He Needs More

With his third-place finish in Kentucky, Ryan Newman earned his first top-five finish of the season. The Richard Childress Racing driver is still without a victory.

With his third-place finish in Kentucky, Ryan Newman earned his first top-five finish of the season. The Richard Childress Racing driver is still without a victory.

Ryan Newman finally found his way to the media center.

When a race is over, that’s where the top three finishers, with some exceptions, go to participate in press conferences.

Newman found himself in front of the media due to his third-place finish in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Normally this sort of thing is pretty much routine for Newman. Just last year, his last with Stewart Haas Racing, Newman had one victory and six finishes among the top five. He had 18 finishes among the top 10 and won two poles.

But that was last year.

This season is Newman’s first with Richard Childress Racing. It’s taken 17 winless races for him to land a top-five finish and he now he has only six among the top 10.

Fact is, RCR hasn’t done much to brag about this year. Even though he has only one top five finish, Newman is the team leader in the point standings. He’s eighth.

Paul Menard is 11th and rookie Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, is 18th. RCR is winless.

While being where they are in points does not crush their hopes for competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, both Newman and Menard know it’s going to take at least one victory to make it.

Newman, as said, is without a victory this year and his best finish came at Kentucky. Prior to that, his high mark was seventh, three times.

Newman’s lone victory in 2013 came in July – and it was a lulu. Starting from the pole, he won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, one of NASCAR’s most prestigious races

Newman is not accustomed to being the type of driver who endures 17 races before he gets a top-five finish.

The last time Newman won a race was at the Brickyard 400 at Indy last July. It came in his last season with Stewart Haas Racing.

The last time Newman won a race was at the Brickyard 400 at Indy last July. It came in his last season with Stewart Haas Racing.

He’s the type of driver who, by this time, should have at least a half-dozen finishes among the top five – including at least one victory.

But RCR appears to be struggling competitively. Though Newman has been somewhat consistent – he’s the second-highest driver in points without a win – he knows there is work to be done.

“It’s nice for us on our team to get a top five, and it’s something to build on for sure,” Newman said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to go out and win the next race, but it gives us some confidence.

“And confidence is very powerful in our sport.”

Undoubtedly, Newman would like to see the kind of performance he and his RCR team had at Kentucky continue. Positive things happened – and that hasn’t always been the case.

“It was everything,” Newman said. “I’d say the biggest gain we had was our pit stops.  The guys gained spots, we did a good job. 

“Everything was nice and clean.  Strategy wise, Luke (Lambert, crew chief), did a great job calling two tires when we needed to and not losing track position with four when other guys were taking two, and all that adds up. 

“Having that clean air and that track position is probably more powerful than anything we do with the race car at times, so that’s probably the biggest difference.”

While Newman admits Hendrick Motorsports is perhaps the strongest team when it comes to horsepower, his own team has been working hard on the engine side – and has made some race gains.

A series of upcoming summer races, at Indy, Pocono and Michigan, may turn out to be RCR’s “proving ground.”

“Pocono, Indy, Michigan, even places like Charlotte now are so much wide open because the cars have still got too much downforce on them that it’s very important to have good horsepower, and good horsepower will win you races,” Newman said. “We’re working on that part of it for Indy and for Pocono and for Michigan. 

“I think we’re not where we need to be, but that’s why we’re working on it, and we’ll see if we can make those gains before those races come.”

You can interpret that as “the sooner the better.”

Fate Kind To Stewart, Not to Harvick or Kurt Busch

Tony Stewart rallied from a 37th-place starting position to earn a fourth place at Bristol, his first top-five finish of the year and one he hopes will start a comeback.

As you know, when it comes to competition, racing can be downright fickle.

In one race a driver performs very well and he’s feeling on top of the world. And then, it’s very possible that in the next race his performance is out to lunch and he’s down in the dumps.

Or he could be riding a hot streak only to see it chilled with a poor performance or a stroke of bad luck. And then it could be just the opposite.

A driver is on the path of mediocrity that comes to an end with a good finish.

It happens all the time.

For a few drivers it happened in the Food City 500 at Bristol, the fourth race of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Tony Stewart had been mired in a slump since Daytona. He hadn’t had a finish in the top 10, much less the top five. He found himself mired in the bottom 20 in the point standings.

It was pretty much the same for his Stewart Haas Racing team. Danica Patrick, plagued by accidents, was not even in the top 30 in points.

Only newcomer Kevin Harvick basked in the spotlight. He won the second race of the year, at Phoenix and found his way into the top 15 in points – where he needed to be because only the top 16 in the standings who have won races makes the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

For SHR, Bristol was fickle. Two drivers were up, two were down.

For Stewart, the race was a godsend. Didn’t look that way at first when her qualified 37thon owner points.

Danica Patrick avoided some problems at Bristol and went on to finish 18th, easily her best finish of the season and one which boosted her five positions in the point standings.

But during the grueling race, delayed for several hours by rains, Stewart doggedly hung in to finish fourth – his first and only top-five run of the year.

It was a tonic. It lifted Stewart out of mediocrity and jolted him upward – for the first time this season – four positions in the standings. He’s now 23rd.

Not where he wants to be, but for now, he’ll take anything he can get.

“It was great,” Stewart said. “To start 37th and end up fourth today, I’m pretty excited about that.

“I’m really excited for everybody on the team. Everybody just worked hard all weekend. We had a long way to go from Friday, when we weren’t very good and every day we just got better and better. So, I’m really proud of this team.”

Stewart knows any “comeback” hasn’t really happened yet. But for it to do so, the time had come to make some progress.

“It’s a step in the right direction for sure,” he said.  “This is a big one.  If you come out of this place with a top-five you’ve had a good day.

“Track position was big like it always is here.  We were pretty strong at the end we just couldn’t run those guys down in front of us. Carl Edwards was obviously really strong at the end but I am happy with the day that we had.”

Teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick were not happy after Bristol. Busch finished 35th and Harvick 39th, his worst performance of the season.

Busch is 31st in points and Harvick fell from 14th to 21st. He’s been unable to finish among the top 10 three of four races this year – but, of course, he has that Daytona victory.

Neither Busch nor Harvick can be blamed for their performances at Bristol. They were victims of mechanical misfortune.

For SHR’s Danica Patrick, fate decided to be kind. She wrecked in practice and started the race in 36th position because of owner points.

However, she avoided potential accidents and persevered for an 18th place finish, easily her best showing of the year.

“We had to go to a back-up car just four laps into practice, so I appreciate the effort of the guys,” Patrick said. “It was a tough weekend, so to come out of here with 18th, I’ll take it.

“It was an eventful night. Cole Whitt wasn’t clear and got into us and so we had some damage.

“Then I lost 1st and 2nd gear and then finally 3rd gear, so the last 100 or 200 laps I only had fourth gear. That’s why I hit Clint (Bowyer) in the pits. I am sorry about that.”

Despite her problems, Patrick advanced five spots in points to 28th place, up from 33rd.

Want more fickle?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was bidding to become only the second driver with four consecutive first-or-second place finishes. Richard Petty did it in 1974.

But tire and handling issues thwarted him. He drifted to 33rd place before his team lifted the hood on his Chevrolet. He finished 24th, four laps down to winner Edwards.

Earnhardt Jr. dropped from first to second in points, 10 behind new leader Brad Keselowski.

But he remains confident. He has been virtually assured of a place in the Chase.

“As long as they’re telling the truth about if you win, you’re in, you ain’t worried about it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You ain’t worried about it – you either win, or you don’t win.

“Second through last doesn’t really matter. If you don’t win, you just go home and try again.”

 

 

 

 

NASCAR and Earnhardt Have Great Start, Can it Continue?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in the exciting Daytona 500 has stoked a lot of new interest in NASCAR, which hopes it will all continue at Phoenix.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves to Phoenix this weekend followed by Las Vegas the next. And if these two races are as energetic and exciting as the Daytona 500, the sanctioning body will be beaming with pride.

Why wouldn’t it? It would be off to one of the best season starts it has had in years – maybe ever.

Of course the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the intense 500 by driving one of the most flawless races of his career has stoked the fans’ enthusiasm and national attention.

The race was marred by a rain delay for over six hours but those fans who hung around – and watched at home in prime time – got a real treat.

The race had 42 lead changes, 37 of them after the rain. Drivers tenaciously fought for position, often running three abreast when normally that would have meant disaster.

Well, there were a couple of them in the form of multicar accidents.

At the end Earnhardt Jr. did a masterful job of blocking and did not allow a single rival to make a run on him.

Even NASCAR’s most popular driver – who is the first driver to enter the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup – called the race “one of the most exciting Daytona 500s I’ve ever been in and one of the most intense races I’ve ever been in.”

Tony Stewart has had a rough start to the season as mechanical failure relegated him to 35th at Daytona. He hopes things will improve at Phoenix.

I think this bodes well for NASCAR as it goes into Phoenix. The Daytona 500 has sparked the interest of new people – given Earnhardt Jr. has been on TV in everything from Letterman to multiple ESPN visits – and their curiosity may well turn their eyes toward Phoenix.

They may be expecting the same show that was the Daytona 500.

Which is exactly why NASCAR would love to see the Phoenix race be a scrapper, and Las Vegas, too.

Can the drivers put on as a good show as we go forward? Of course. Nearly all of them were pleased at how competitive the 500 was, both as participants and fans.

When it comes to competitiveness, they might have something of an advantage. The Gen 6 car was refurbished to allow more passing, particularly on the 1.5-mile tracks like Vegas. We’ll see.

While what was the Daytona 500 can be repeated, it’s more likely that it won’t. But let’s not let that cool our interest.

After all, there are some darn good storylines going into Phoenix and they will attract more than their share of attention.

To wit: Can Earnhardt Jr. win again? If so, will it be at Phoenix?

Certainly he can win again – and the safe bet is that he will this year. For a driver to win two races in a row is something rare, but it has been done. And you can bet the “Junior Nation,” and many others, will be watching to see if Earnhardt Jr. can do it. It’s inevitable.

I would suggest there are a couple other competitors who bear scrutiny at Phoenix.

One is Denny Hamlin. Back in 2014 from a compressed fracture in his back that forced him to miss four races last season, he has had a spectacular start.

Hamlin won the last race of 2013, at Homestead. Then, at Daytona, he won the Sprint Unlimited, a Bud Duel event and finished second in the 500.

That means Hamlin has won three of his last four races and finished as a runnerup in the fourth.

Earnhardt Jr. aside, Hamlin is clearly the hottest driver early in the 2014 season and could keep up his hot streak in Phoenix.

On the other end of the spectrum there is Tony Stewart and his Stewart Haas team.

Admittedly the Daytona 500 is a restrictor-plate race, which means it can be an uncertain business. But Stewart Haas Racing left there with a performance that makes it slow out of the gate.

Not that it was entirely SHR’s fault.

Kevin Harvick had the best team finish at 13th, even though he crashed at the finish.

Danica Patrick crashed earlier and finished 40th. Kurt Busch was involved in two incidents, one on pit road with Trevor Bayne, and finished 21st.

Stewart suffered a 35th-place finish after he experienced a fuel cell, and its electronics, problem.

It was a cruel blow for Stewart, who has returned from a shattered right leg – which is not fully healed, by the way – suffered in a Sprint Car accident that forced him to miss 15 races last season.

He and Patrick both suffered blown engines and had to start from the rear of the field at Daytona.

Stewart has the ultimate confidence in his team and adds that the real racing begins at Phoenix.

“On the restrictor-plate races it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal,” he said. “What happens at Phoenix has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix.

“You have to race.”

SHR’s fortunes may rise if, among other things, Harvick performs well at Phoenix, which he has in the past.

He won the fall race at the one-mile track last season and has four wins there. He also has four top fives in the past seven races. But all of that was achieved in Richard Childress Racing equipment.

Harvick left RCR for Stewart’s organization last year.

But he will likely be listed as a favorite at Phoenix.

All of these storylines aside the real appeal of Phoenix lies with the drivers. Will they be as competitive as they were in Daytona and give us all another exciting race?

Reckon we all hope so. I’m sure NASCAR does.

It’s Likely, Very Likey, Much Scrutiny Will Befall Stewart, Dillon

Austin Dillon, the 2013 Nationwide Series champ, will enter his Sprint Cup rookie season driving a No. 3 Chevrolet for RCR.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In my opinion, the two drivers who are going to bear the most scrutiny – by far – this season are, first, a past champion who is returning from a major injury and, second, a young rookie who will compete with NASCAR’s most iconic number that is readily identified with its most iconic driver.

Tony Stewart shattered his right leg seven months ago in an accident in a Sprint Car race. The two-time champion missed 15 races as doctors rebuilt his leg and he fought a bout with infection. He underwent rigid rehabilitation.

“The good thing is with all of that our therapy has been going really well and in the last few weeks we’ve made huge gains,” said Stewart, whose four-car team includes drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. “I don’t know how we could be more prepared, honestly, than what we are right now.

“The perfect scenario, everything would be healed 100% and we wouldn’t be talking about it.  The bone is still about 65% healed right now.

“But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be.”

Stewart admitted some internal changes were made to his Chevrolet to make it more comfortable for him. Fact is, inside the car is where he is most at ease.

“I’m actually more comfortable sitting in a car than I am laying in bed at the end of the day,” Stewart said. “Sitting in the race car the last couple weeks, getting everything done, it feels even more comfortable than the street car.”

Stewart’s first laps in his car came during Sprint Unlimited practice on Feb. 14. He said he felt a sense of joy and relief to be back on the track.

“I think once we got the relief of knowing we weren’t hurting any more it was just the joy of being out there again,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I had been gone for seven months.”

Stewart posted the fourth-fastest 10 consecutive lap average speed of 194.212 mph.

Tony Stewart spent months rehabilitating his broken leg. It is not fully healed, but he will drive again in 2014.

Stewart knows he’s going to be under the microscope. People will be curious to see how he races with an injury that is not quite healed They will wonder that, if at some point, his performance – or lack of it – will cause self-doubt.

“No, there are no gremlins, honestly no,” he said. “The reason for that is right off the bat the surgeon, the therapists, they’ve all said, ‘You’re going to have 100 percent recovery.’  With that, from day one, it took that doubt out.

“Instead of having the doubt, it’s a matter of when is it going to be 100 percent, how long is the pain going to stay, am I always going to have pain, questions like that.

“There is no doubt about being able to do what we love to do.”

Austin Dillon is 23-year old rookie who won the Nationwide Series championship last season.

He comes from excellent racing stock. His grandfather is team owner Richard Childress, for whom Dillon has raced for several years.

He will race for Childress on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2014. And he will do so in a No. 3 Chevrolet.

It will mark the first time the No. 3 has been a part of Sprint Cup racing since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. It was Earnhardt who drove the No. 3 to glory for so many years.

That the number has returned does not sit well with many fans. They steadfastly believe the No. 3 is Earnhardt’s alone – and should never be raced again.

But that it is back is, partly, the result of careful planning between Childress and Dillon.

“I think both of us for years now, running the No. 3 in the last four years (in multiple NASCAR circuits), it kind of prepared us for any kind of question or opportunity that arises,” Dillon said. “The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and also just, you know, taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way.

“We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3.  I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”

Dillon is nobody’s fool. He knows that to continue the legacy of the No. 3 he has to perform well. It’s that simple. And there are those who want to see him fail simply because of his car number.

“I think Dale was so important in driving that number,” Dillon said. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today.

“But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but also because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.

“As for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on.”

Make no mistake Dillon will feel some pressure as he undergoes scrutiny. People will want to see if he can indeed continue the legacy of the No. 3.

It’s simply the way it is.

—- Dillon made a very auspicious and popular Sprint Cup debut when he won the pole in the No. 3 Chevrolet on Feb. 16. It offered some evidence, however slim, that Dillon may indeed be able to continue the legacy of the number used by Earnhardt.

—- Stewart, meanwhile, did not experience similar fate. He was involved in an eight-car crash in the Sprint Unlimited and finished 11thamong 18 starters. Stewart wrecked hard and there was concern he may have re-injured his leg. “No, there’s no pain,” Stewart said. “We’ll see in about an hour after the adrenalin wears off but so far, it feels good.”

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