Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do It Again: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looks to Repeat Texas Magic from 2000

April 2, 2000 will forever be immortalized as a memorable date for one of racing's perennial names when third-generation driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. captured his first career victory in the NASCAR Cup ranks at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Even if the weather was eerie, filled with clouds and a brooding atmosphere surrounding the treacherous 1.5-mile facility, the scenes from Victory Lane on that day were liken to that of beach-goers enjoying the sun, taking in every aspect of their surroundings with absolute euphoria.

Making that victory even sweeter for fans and the Earnhardt family was witnessing a rare moment of a seven-time Cup champion stepping out of that Intimidator role, embracing his 25-year-old son proudly as an emotional, joyful father. It was a moment that compared to the sentimental cheers and jubilation of the 1998 Daytona 500 Victory Lane - just sweeter and more satisfying for one of NASCAR's most prominent clans.

Regardless of your allegiance, the sight of the Dale Sr. and Junior hugging each other in a confetti-filled winner's circle was about as good as it gets, exemplifying the notion of NASCAR being a family affair sport.

Fast forward to 2010 and a lot has changed since that magical moment in stock car racing. Dale Sr. has since gone off to the racing heavens while his son has been somewhat beleaguered by motorsports purgatory, experiencing an inconsistent streak of success and struggles with his Cup career.

Just as his father accomplished on Feb. 15, 1998, Earnhardt Jr. captured a Daytona 500 win on the same date just six years later. He's also gained a notoriety of being a restrictor plate ace, winning seven events, including a four race winning streak at Talladega (Oct. 2001-Apr. '03). During his years with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, his No. 8 Budweiser Chevy was the pied piper of those 43 car packs.

Also, he's had his share of hard hits, including a heavy crash in the 2002 Fontana race, in which he and Kevin Harvick collided just before the exit off turn four, leaving "Little E" with his worst career injury with a concussion and ankle pain.

Earnhardt Jr. would admit about his injury months after the accident, as he didn't want to endure the criticism or prospects of being called "washed up" by the media.

"I didn't want to tell it until it got better and I started to run better," Earnhardt said in a 2002 USA Today interview with Chris Jenkins. "You just start back at zero and people are going, 'Oh, he's finished, he'll never be the same.'"

Since his tumultuous 2002 campaign, there's been a number of great moments, where it appears as if another Earnhardt might be in the record books as a champion. With 18 victories, 89 top-fives, and 144 top-10s in 370 races, his Sprint Cup career has been fairly respectable.

Driving for one of the most-established teams in all of racing, namely with Hendrick Motorsports, the expectations are for Earnhardt Jr. to step it up, win multiple races and to capture a collection of titles. After all, he's working alongside some of the sport's greatest contemporaries with Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson.

Then there are times when he's perceived as washed-up or a driver that doesn't have the desire to compete at the highest level. Especially with 2009, there were moments where the perception with the No. 88 unit was "three strong Hendrick teams and then the Earnhardt bunch."

Even if the results aren't showing, to say that about any racer is simply insulting, given how competitive and close the fields are, from qualifying rounds to the races on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. As seen with even the best in the business, like Gordon and Martin at their worst, success is never guaranteed for the elites.

Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway will be one for the sentimental books for Earnhardt Jr., who experienced two of his most memorable NASCAR moments in a span of two years. In 1998, he won his first Nationwide Series race, a memorable moment that truly served as the Kannapolis, NC's "Welcome to NASCAR" moment as a legit contender.

Two years later, he stepped up to the Cup stage and delivered with a dominant performance, leading 106 of the 334 laps enroute to winning the DirecTV 500 in front of the Ft. Worth racing fans who witnessed a historical day.

When CBS Sports' Ken Squier asked Dale Sr. about his son's victory, smiling, he said, "I tell you, he's something else. We knew the kid could do it. This kid, he's worked hard."

It'd be a moment that Earnhardt Jr. may never capture again, but to win a race, especially if it happens this Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, will be about as special as it gets for the grown-up, 35-year old racing veteran.

Coming off of three consecutive seasons of disappointment, the 2010 season has shaped up as a decent campaign thus far through seven events. Sitting 10th in the points battle, his statistics aren't exactly screaming loud, with a top-five and two top-10s. However, the focus to win again has never wavered, working as diligently as ever to prove to fans that he is a true Cup contender.

His communication with crew chief Lance McGrew has improved since last year, even to a point where some of their chemistry has been tested a time or two as seen in Bristol last month. Both appear to be on the same page and the cars seem to get closer to Earnhardt Jr.'s liking on race day.

"Little E" may not be the fresh faced kid from 2000, as he sports a beard that would make Mike Love jealous. Some of his enthusiasm and youthful demeanour has faded, replaced by one that's focused on the racing industry, as well as his JR Motorsports venture in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

However, if the wayback machine's in use and Sunday's race at Texas has a touch of nosalgia, particularly by race's end, it will probably involve Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevy team.

With the way this season's been in producing emotional victories for some of the sport's most established stars, a win by the two-time Nationwide titlist will certainly serve as one of the more popular moments for the sport.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

NASCAR's Certainty Factor: Martinsville Brings Out Drivers' Best (Or Worst)

Regardless of whom your colors and allegiance are with, what's certain in auto racing, particularly with NASCAR, is that a short track like Martinsville Speedway brings out the best of a driver (or the worst).

Sheer determination, fearlessness, and tenacity are some of the qualities separating the winner from his combatants on the field of play, especially at a cereal bowl-like facility like this charter track of stock car racing.

Monday's Goody Fast Pain Relief 500 was nothing short on the excitement factor, with two former Sprint Cup champions tangling near the race's finish, opening the door for aggressive and title favorite Denny Hamlin to grab his first victory this season.

How it all unfolded was probably as memorable as the finish itself. Kyle Busch, who pitted with his teammate Hamlin down the stretch, got loose and spun out near the outside retaining wall on lap 498. Busch's incident incited some controversy, mainly with the NASCAR officials throwing the caution flag within the window for "Overtime," shootout-style restart.

Jeff Gordon, whose last victory was on April 5 of last year, was merely within striking distance of crossing the start/finish line, which would have certainly resulted in the race finishing in a yellow flag condition.

Leading the race and certainly in need of a victory to make some noise for his Chase for the Sprint Cup bid, the late-race pause and restart did not sit well with the seven-time Martinsville winner.

"It was pretty obvious to me that NASCAR wanted to do a green-white checkered finish," said Gordon in AP Sports Writer Hanz Kurz Jr's article . "There were cars blowing tires, hitting the wall and they weren't throwing the caution. One spins out, and they throw the caution in the blink of an eye."

Instead of celebrating his 83rd career victory and his first win of the year, he ended up placing third, tangling with Matt Kenseth while defending his lead position. Gordon's paint trading with Kenseth opened the door for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing ally Joey Logano to bring home the top-two spots with the checkered flag in the air.

Before anyone brings up the Jeff Gordon-Matt Kenseth incidents of 2006 and 2008 need to consider this: Put anyone in their position with victory in sight and it's almost certain that any driver would have duked it out and meshed in fenders similarly like those two championship-winning racers.

Both veterans were in desperate need of a win, enduring winless streaks that date back to last season. While Gordon and Kenseth are considered as one of the best in the sport, their results have hardly backed up such sentiments and thoughts.

Kenseth has been in a rut for a trophy, last pulling into the winner's circle in the 2009 Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif., or a crew chief change ago. His No. 17 Crown Royal team has made steady gains thus far in 2010, with the emotionally-charged Todd Parrott calling the shots as crew chief for the 11th year driver.

Despite Monday's 18th place result, the pride of Cambridge, Wisc., has nothing to be ashamed of, sitting third in the points race, just 16 markers from the points lead. Still, he and Gordon will certainly be wondering "what if," at least until Phoenix race weekend in two weeks.

As for Gordon, it was another winning opportunity that essentially went down the drain, unable to capitalize at his chance to get into Victory Lane again. If Las Vegas was painful, his collapse at Martinsville has got to sting him twice as much, knowing that he was oh-so close at a win.

"We had the thing wrapped up," Gordon said in short. "All I can tell you is you know it's gonna get wild and crazy."

Not one to steal the title of a popular Nickelodeon show from the early 1990s, the "FireStorm Warrior" has certainly been on both ends of the NASCAR "certainty factor."

When it's been to his advantage, Gordon does a better job as the hunter than Elmer Fudd. In 1997, Gordon bumped race leader Rusty Wallace during the final lap of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, pulling a "bump and run" pass in the final corners, grabbing his third consecutive spring victory at "The World's Fastest Half-Mile."

At first, it looked like the DuPont team was resigned to a runner-up finish behind the Miller Ford of Wallace and Penske Racing South. Despite the No. 24 car's faltering performance down the stretch of the race, it was a three-man race for the win, as Wallace, Gordon, and Terry Labonte duked it out for checkered flag supremacy down the stretch.

With the white flag waving, the trio raced around the first corners cleanly, although they caught up with race traffic with Jimmy Spencer impeding the progress of Wallace and company. That's when Gordon decided to play the role of devil's advocate, tapping the rear clip of the No. 2 Ford in turn three, grabbing his third win of the '97 season.

However, like Fudd, he's been known for some gaffes in the late-going of the race. Four years later at what was then called New Hampshire International Speedway, the recently crowned, four-time champ had the lead under 20 laps to go in that season's final race, within sight of his seventh victory of a banner year.

Dominating the 300-lap event, it was shaping up as a patented-Jeff Gordon day. Robby Gordon, piloting the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, had other ideas for a pre-Thanksgiving send-off to the Cup titlist.

That season was turbulent for the Orange, Calif., native, having been released from the No. 4 Kodak Chevy owned by Morgan-McClure Racing to playing substitute racer for Mattei Motorsports' No. 7 Nations Rent Ford and Childress' Lowe's machine. Looking to justify his seat with the No. 31 team, Robby Gordon pulled off one of the most boldest (or lamest, depending on your perspective) moves of his career.

Heading into the third corner of "The Magic Mile," Robby gave Jeff a significant bump, washing the No. 24 DuPont Chevy into Mike Wallace's No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford and into the marbles, propelling the No. 31 car into the lead, en route to an upset, memorable first career win for the beleaguered open wheel star.

NASCAR threw the caution flag out as the 12 and 24 cars realigned themselves in the field. Agitated, what did Four-Time do? Only what any other racer probably would have done in his shoes.

JG, as we'll call him here to avoid confusion, drives up to the lead car of Robby Gordon, pulling behind the Lowe's machine before giving a parting shot to the back of the No. 31 Chevy. As usual with NASCAR before this season's "have at it, boys" stance, the officials summoned JG down to his pit box for a late-race penalty that ultimately shuffled him down the running order.

Gordon's no stranger to the paint trading games of short track racing, having his share of wins and defeats like any other driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Martinsville Speedway often brings out the best in the 38-year-old sensation, having his fair share of laps led and grandfather clocks to boot.

Just on Monday, the cards handed to Gordon were good, but not enough for a win. Denny Hamlin was at the right place at the right time, playing the game of short tracks excellently.

How many times have we seen this particular episode before in NASCAR racing?

Countless times, that's how many.

Names like Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, and Ricky Rudd are some that come to mind with last-lap fracuses at a short track.

Applying the chrome horn and showing the determination factor to turn his so-far subpar season, that was the difference between the black and orange/yellow flames car placing third and a delivery machine sending Joe Gibbs Racing some props in Victory Lane.

For all the talk that Jeff Gordon wants to give for a late-race caution flag hurting his chances at sealing the deal, it's about playing the hand of cards dealt that truly determine the outcome of a race.

There'll be another time for the certain NASCAR Hall of Famer—but make no mistake: This one's going to seethe and haunt the No. 24 team for some time with the Easter holiday break ahead.

So what's the bottom line: Pit two drivers, whether it's short track racers from Midwest America or the dirt ovals of the Carolinas, in a position for victory. It's certain that the Gordon-Kenseth show will be on display, only with more fireworks and tempers boiling than your cup of Ramen noodles in hand while reading this article.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

CoT to Be Real?

For the past 10 months, the buzz around the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage, in terms of the cars, has been its competitiveness. While the sanctioning body achieved its long-term desire for close fields and durable machines that could be reused as many times as Star Trek fans view The Wrath of Khan, the car billed as an elixir to the problems with the on-track product has somewhat failed with its expectations, especially with fans and some racers.

Town hall meetings were held, starting last May during Charlotte Speedweeks, in which one of the most frequently mentioned component that had a negative impact on the cars and races were the rear wings. The Car of Tomorrow touted this particular piece, which replaced the aluminum spoilers, as a compliment to this next generation vehicle.

However, this breed of racing machine has taken something of a long time for the masses to accept. Gone were the sleek designs which somewhat resembled their street counterparts from the assembly plants. These cars were now boxier, with a front valence dubbed as the splitter, bigger greenhouses, and of course, that oft-mentioned wing.

Old school fans immediately dismissed the new Cup car as behemoth and atrocious, barely resembling the epitome of a truly stock steel chariot. There was nothing recognizable with them, looking less like a NASCAR but something from illegal drag race cars on the city streets.

Well, after nearly two years in its truly maligned tenure as the car of choice in Cup racing, NASCAR's decided to truly do away with the wing, opting for the traditional rear spoiler to bring familiarity back with the fans and competitors. Based on looks, it's looking halfway toward being a stock car again.

What's the problem then, you may be wondering? How about the fact that it's almost like NASCAR's somewhat admitting that the Car of Tomorrow hasn't been the cure-all to the somewhat drawn out racing that we've seen in the past 15-16 years. In fact, it's only added on to the discontentment that's marred the series which has been billed as the most premier racing division in America.

Sure, the safety features are amazing. Carbon fiber seating, energy absorbing foams on the sides of the car, as well as its ability to be reused frequently are some of the pros of the CoT. Yet, some critics argue that these very aspects could have been implemented with the old car, which is on the verge of being phased out in the Nationwide Series.

The spoiler won't change much of the racing at a track like Martinsville or Richmond, which remain as closely contested and exciting as they've been in the past. However, it may aid in the excitement factor at a place such as Michigan, Pocono, and dare I say, Fontana. How many races have we seen the field string out like that of a 43-car parade?

Hopefully, this change, as the saying goes, will do some good. Maybe we'll see the CoT truly live up to its prediction as a cure-all to the four hour struggles in the past 15 years. Perhaps some of the reviews with the Nationwide carnation of the CoT will aid with the Sprint Cup's version, which could truly use additional cosmetic makeover.

What's next with the CoT? Could the splitter be removed in favor of a more orthodox looking front clip? Time will tell and the racing action on the track's truly up in the air with the jury of the 36 races: the fans. With the sport's talking heads, particularly Robin Pemberon, Vice President of Competition in NASCAR, telling the ladies and gents of the sport to "have at it," maybe the sanctioning body's following suit. After all, it's CoT to be real!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Women In Motorsports

I am pleased to announce what I hope to have as one of the exclusive features on my blog which has barely been a few weeks old. Tonight at 9 ET, I'll be hosting and moderating a NASCAR and auto racing forum with some of the finest female racers in the sport today. Joining me will be Caitlin Shaw, Jennifer Jo Cobb, and Tiff Daniels of NASCAR, alongwith Leilani Munter of the ARCA Re/Max Series, and Alison Macleod of the NASCAR Canadian Tires Series.

You are more than welcome to join us for the hour long chat session - hopefully, it'll be the first of many sessions we'll have with guests and please let me know what you think of it! Thanks very much.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Racing Heroes (Part One)

Racing has been a part of my life for the past 19 years, mostly following the action on the NASCAR circuit as well as some of the happenings in the other stock car series like ARCA, ASA, and USAR. Also, from time-to-time, I've kept an eye on the open wheel ranks, curiously watching the Indy 500 action or the championship races that prove to be as dramatic as a Super Bowl contest all tied-up until the last second of regulation.

My heroes have either had their moments of glory or currently compete in the asphalt arenas and dirt bowls of America, leaving it all on the line as they race to the front. Some are accused of being vanilla, while others are willing to do whatever it takes to prove themselves as true racers in their circuits.

I admire those who follow the belief of "working hard, playing hard." One of those drivers who followed that expression was Dale Jarrett, who was willing to drive the wheels off his car while being an ardent student of auto racing from the get-go.

Sure, he had the famous racing name, which probably had him labeled as another lackey in motorsports who was simply given opportunities based off the success of his father Ned, a two-time NASCAR Cup champion. Early in his career, it was hard for the younger Jarrett to shed that label of a "wannabe" competitor, racing in shoddy equipment or shrewd car owners who were better off as spectators of the game.

Still, he was willing to learn about the game and show people that he belonged in Cup racing. He paid particular attention to details from some of the best in the sport, including his father, as well as car owners like Horace Isenhower and Cale Yarborough. Friends like Andy Petree also stood by him, supporting him in his Nationwide and Cup efforts, even if it meant success was hanging around the top-15.

Some wondered if Jarrett would amount to anything. After all, in Winston Cup racing at least, top-15s aren't exactly successful results and the sharks aka sponsors and car owners wouldn't be afraid to find someone else who could get the job done.

Sometimes, opportunities come up with a bit of luck - just by being there at the right place at the right time. That was the case in 1990 for DJ, who got the call originally as interim driver for the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Citgo Ford T-Bird, seen as something of a respectable, highly regarded ride in the likes of the No. 43 STP Pontiac and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy.

Just imagine at one moment, you're racing for a middling organization whose best days are a rare 10th place finish at some random stop in the tour. Suddenly, you're called up to race for a team whose equipment actually matches your abilities, with every tool for victories and success at your disposal.

Dale Jarrett had to be ecstatic and it showed poignantly. He didn't disappoint, although he had some growing pains in transitioning from a fledgling driver to a formidable contender on a weekly basis. Those years of cutting teeth in mediocre cars paid off, as the second-generation racer became a threat and contender, right up there with guys like Earnhardt, Wallace, Labonte, and eventually, Gordon.

Jarrett would go on to drive for Joe Gibbs, ushering in the prolific three-time Super Bowl-winning coach into NASCAR, as well as legendary car owner Robert Yates and friend Michael Waltrip. Along the way came those two Daytona 500 victories, the 1996 Coca-Cola 600 triumph, two Brickyard 400 titles, and the 1999 Cup championship.

Years later, I learned to appreciate Jarrett as a favorite racer and athlete. His work ethic was equally as impressive as the professionalism and class that he exemplified in his driving career. Respectable, congenial, and most of all, inspirational, he proved that nice guys do indeed finish first and succeed.

Whenever I'm writing an article, preparing for class, or doing about anything activity in life, I try to reflect on the heroes of my life. Of course, my parents are the first and true inspirations of my life. I also reflect on some kid born from Hickory, N.C., who dreamt of becoming a racing superstar and grew up to become quite the legend in his own regard.

If racers need someone to look up to who left it all on the line but left the competitive attitude away from the track, Jarrett's someone who'll forever be extolled as a true hero to anyone who needs that reminder of the human triumph story.

An Unusual Start for the Unusual Sport of NASCAR

Another season has dawned upon us and the NASCAR Sprint Cup scene could not be more complex than it is already. Fans are either elated or slightly panicking over their teams' performances in 2010, rationally or closely predicting how the drivers and crews will fare in the upcoming races. What's certain is that this season will be the most unusual one yet, and I'm certainly not saying that because of who won this year's Daytona 500 or the fact that a "beloved" four-time champion has captured the past two races.

Three years ago, the sport implemented its greatest change with the cars since 1981 when it phased-in the Car of Tomorrow chassis and body style, which greatly affected the competition on the track. Immediately, Hendrick Motorsports' racers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson picked up where they started during the 2007 season, finding immediate success before other teams like Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Roush-Fenway Racing adapted to the car.

By far, this vehicle was embraced with polarized reactions, with drivers either feeling like it improved the on-track product or worsening the action on the playing field. Instead of front valences and rear spoilers, crews now dealt with splitters and wings. Sounds more like the names of chicken meals than a stock car, if you ask me.

Make no mistake about it - NASCAR made up its mind, adamant and firm on its decision with the implementation of the Car of Tomorrow. It was here to stay and there wasn't a whole lot that teams, fans, or the media could do about the CoT. After all, it'd improved safety features, save teams money, and prove to be a durable machine.

Suck it up or watch IndyCar racing, they probably thought.

Fast forward three years later, where the sport has somewhat made an "Oops, we made a boo boo" statement with the soon-to-be-used rear spoilers on the CoT bodies. Let's face it - wings work only on airplanes, chicken, and the Plymouth Superbird. Just not in today's stock cars.

Whether or not the talking heads want to admit it, the rear wing presented trouble at the high-speed arenas, particularly at Daytona and Talladega. Sure, the boxy cars meant that teams were given the largest restrictor plates since 1989. While designed to be a not-so aerodynamic friendly vehicle, it proved to be a machine that basked in the draft, revitalizing the slingshot draft tactic that seemingly died after the mid-1980s.

While I understand the need for the CoT, which has undoubtedly saved drivers from serious injuries, it has probably done the very opposite which it was intended to do back in 2007: improving the racing product on the track.

Seemingly, the only way that NASCAR has managed to save itself, either by coincidence or maybe with an appearance of a friendly "old" friend, with the races is by way of the late-race caution flag, courtesy of a mysterious piece of debris, or as fans have dubiously labeled it, "Jacques Debris."

Call me old school, but it wasn't long ago when these Sunday spectacles were interesting enough that a late caution flag period proved unnecessary to bunch up the field for the finish. Instead, it was up to the skills of the racers and pit crews to make the dramatics happen, with a 200 mph chess match with decision making and position shuffling on the speedway. More often than not, we got a great show, even if the finish was part of a long green-flag run.

Now, we have parades on the track, often lasting longer than an Extenze pill will help certain readers or a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will entertain the kids in New York City. NASCAR has become something similar to a cycling race, with a peloton and a pack of chasers. However, it's not in the context that would prove most desirable (no pun intended), as the competition is quite distant until that late caution period.

When I first saw the CoT, my first thoughts were that it would kill the racing action and prove to be an unpopular car with the fans and some teams. Save for some short track races in the past three years, where aerodynamics are practically absent as a factor, it has made events at most of the "cookie cutter" tracks even more boring to spectators in the grandstands and fans huddled in their living rooms across the US of A.

Perhaps NASCAR will make a CYF (Cover Your Face) move with the rear spoiler, which hopefully prove to be a much better component to the cars and competition than the wing. While NASCAR is hoping that it produces relatively the same downforce and aero numbers as the wing, this fan and writer thinks it may actually enhance the racing and perhaps save a few drivers from experiencing "A Claritin Moment" aka what happened to Carl Edwards in last April's Talladega horror.

Maybe it'll aid some racers who have struggled to produce multiple victories or a win in the past three seasons, namely Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is a capable driver that just hasn't come quite to terms with the CoT, or Greg Biffle, who has been somewhat overshadowed by his teammates in Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards over the past few years.

Whatever the spoiler does, it will undoubtedly be part of what has become one of the most unusual starts to a very atypical sport. Regardless, we love it, but hopefully, what will become typical on the track is good racing. After all, the only traffic that any individual should encounter on a race weekend is the one going home to points unknown, not on the battlefields of America's finest facilities.