Posted on: January 18, 2011 12:18 pm
Edited on: January 18, 2011 12:26 pm

New Points System on Horizon

Here we go again.

Those fans who have tired of the seemingly endless string of changes that have come into the NASCAR world in recent years won't like the potential news of yet another massive modification to big league stock car racing.

Forget about rumored tweaks to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship system. By all accounts it appears NASCAR is ready to overhaul its entire points system and scrap a format that has been in place since 1975.

Speculation is NASCAR will replace the current system and implement championship points for every race with a 43-1 formula, meaning the race winner will receive the maximum 43 while last place gets one point. How bonuses for laps led and most laps led in a race will work out have yet to be determined but the new plan will at the very least simplify numbers and how they are distributed.

At first glance maybe that's not such a bad thing. Shrinking the points pool will allow fans to pretty easily figure out how many the guy who takes the checkered flag earned and by simple math what the tenth place finisher is awarded as well.

It appears that in reality the system will still be based on consistency and that really just a smaller set of numbers will be instituted and in turn provide a relatively easy way for fans to follow along.

How the Chase works, who qualifies for the playoffs, what criteria allows drivers to make the title run and how the field is set for the ten race championship schedule are also not known at this time. All will no doubt be explained during NASCAR CEO Brian France's "State of the Sport" presentation during next week's annual pre-season media tour in Charlotte.

While the radical change in the points system might indeed make sense once it's all sorted out, my bigger question is how will it impact NASCAR's overall fan base which has grown increasingly tired of the many moves the sport has made since 2004?

Does this latest idea run the risk of running off even more fans rather than attract the new ones the sport so desperately seeks? Since the controversial Chase format was introduced in 2004, it has undergone at least three modifications with more apparently on the way. There comes a time when a sport needs to let things settle when changes are put into place but despite France stating two years ago the sanctioning body was going to do just that, NASCAR has kept the announcements coming at a fast and furious pace. Just last week the policy of allowing drivers to run for only one championship per season was uncovered in a move that dramatically altered the Nationwide Series title picture.

The 2010 season was by far the most competitive in the sport's recent history and statistics say of all time. With that on-track product on such a high, I question whether it's wise to shift the focus away from the track and shake up a points system that helped create some memorable championship scenarios over the years including last season's Chase which went down to the wire in Homestead.

We'll find out just how much change is too much in the coming weeks.
Category: Auto Racing
Posted on: November 29, 2010 5:26 pm

Petty Stays in the Game

The Petty name has been a part of NASCAR since the sport's beginnings more than sixty years ago.

Thanks to some financial wheeling and dealing it will remain a part of big league stock car racing for the immediate future.

Richard Petty Motorsports was saved when a group of investors led by Medallion Financial Group and DGB Investments came to agreement to relieve the embattled race team from the mountain of debt compiled by former owners George and Foster Gillett and allow the organization to move forward with plans to continue competing in the Sprint Cup Series.

The financial collapse of Gillett put the Petty operation on the very brink of extinction and the very real possibility of the team closing its doors for good after the Homestead season finale seemed imminent. Many wondered if Petty would go the way of other legendary NASCAR figures who tried their hand at ownership only to walk away from the sport.

But "The King" himself actively went out to pursue investors to save RPM and the newest alignment will find Richard positioned as Chairman and involved in more of the day-to-day operation of the business than with the previous incarnation of the team.

The turn of events was an early holiday gift for the organization which somehow managed to continue fielding four teams at the final races of 2010 while battling a huge financial burden that literally put the operation on the razor's edge of survival.

The plan to shrink from a four to two car stable in 2011 remains in place with A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose tabbed to pilot a pair of Fords out of the Petty stable, which will continue to purchase chassis and engine resources from Roush Fenway Racing.

The alignment between RPM and RFR, although strained in recent weeks due to the financial problems at the Petty organization, began to bear fruit as the turnaround for Ford continued from mid-season. Allmendinger in particular was extremely impressive during the latter part of the schedule and along with Aric Almirola, who piloted the RPM No. 9 entry, was able to notch a top five finish in the Homestead finale.

The performance alone, although promising, wasn't going to be enough to carry RPM through the off season as the preparation for 2011 began. As recently as ten days ago there were reports the organization would indeed go out of business.

The influx of new investors and the reorganization of the company is the white knight Petty fans had been hoping for since the news of the potential demise surfaced around mid-summer.

Gillett can add his name to the long list of business outsiders who came into NASCAR not fully understanding the sport and failed. That team photo includes the likes of Bobby Ginn, J.D. Stacy and Alex Meshkin and now includes Gillett, who was ousted in similar fashion to when Ray Evernham got the boot after RPM acquired the assets of Evernham Motorsports in 2007.

While the new partners don't have a history of working in the sport, they do have the benefit of working with someone who has for more than sixty years. Richard Petty is synonymous with NASCAR and is one of the last remaining links the sport has to its glorious past.

He'll now have the challenge of trying to run a team while competing with powerhouse organizations like Hendrick, Gibbs, RCR and RPM partner Roush Fenway. "The King" will have to be more than simply a goodwill ambassador, a role he admittedly played more than team owner with the previous regime.

There's a decent foundation to build on after ending 2010 on an upswing. Hopefully having the shadow of impending doom gone from the equation will allow this latest version of RPM to flourish.

It's good to know the sight of the "The King" in his cowboy hat and sunglasses will be with us for a while longer.

Posted on: November 24, 2010 11:36 am
Edited on: November 24, 2010 11:37 am

Hendrick Shuffles the Deck

Only two days removed from a fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship and tenth overall, Rick Hendrick basically blew up his organization.

Hendrick has decided to shuffle every one of his crew chief-driver combinations with the exception of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus in an effort to make the entire operation stronger.

The search for chemistry is one of the most daring science experiments in the history of NASCAR.

When the 2011 Cup season rolls around it will be veteran Mark Martin paired with former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Lance McGrew, Jeff Gordon working with Alan Gustaffson and Earnhardt Jr. tied with Steve Letarte. The famous "2-4-8" shop, which has housed the Johnson/Gordon combo for years, will now see Junior's No. 88 squad bunk with Johnson's title winning team while the Gordon and Martin entries work together in another building on the massive Hendrick campus.

Despite Johnson winning six times and an unprecedented fifth consecutive crown, Hendrick was not pleased with the overall direction of the team and the dramatic change of personnel was made.

"This will improve us as an organization across the board," Hendrick said. "We had a championship season but we weren't where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams. We've made the right adjustments and I'm excited to go racing with this lineup."

At first glance it would appear the decision to juggle the Hendrick line-up was also made to somehow jump start the performance of Earnhardt, who has been nothing short of a major disappointment since joining the organization three years ago. Earnhardt's quest to win races on a more consistent basis and contend for championships which played into "The Decision" to join Hendrick after he contentious departure from DEI has fallen far short of expectations.

Earnhardt will now have the third full-time crew chief of his Hendrick tenure in Letarte, who follows Tony Eury Jr. and McGrew as the latest hope to find a way to make the No. 88 Chevrolet a contender.

If Letarte thought he was in the crosshairs when he worked with Gordon, he was just fitted for a jacket with a giant bulls eye on the back in his newest gig.

There may not be a more pressure-packed crew chief job at the Sprint Cup level than calling the shots for Earnhardt, and that includes what Knaus, Denny Hamlin's chief Mike Ford and Kevin Harvick's pit boss Gil Martin just went through running for the title in Sunday's Homestead finale. Despite not winning in more than two years and rarely contending for victory lane, Earnhardt remains the sport's most popular figure and in many ways is still the face of the sport. 

Should Letarte can somehow get Earnhardt's Cup career back on track he'll be hailed as a savior to "Junior Nation." But should the same mediocre performance be the order of the day in 2011, he'll more than likely take the blame from the fervent fan base that supports Junior through thick and thin.

My belief is that 2011 is the make or break year for Earnhardt and unless the performance is upgraded, and nothing short of multiple wins as well as a Chase berth should be accepted, he'll have a new home by the following season. At that point, Hendrick will have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at trying to get his marketing machine driver to be competitive and if this latest swing doesn't hit it out of the park it will be the third strike.

However Hendrick points out that these changes weren't done solely for the benefit of Earnhardt.

"This is not a Dale Earnhardt, not a move that we made this major of a move because of Dale or his situation," Hendrick said.

Hendrick simply believes his team needed to be "re-energized" and that he had to create a new set of working conditions that would raise the entire organization to the championship-caliber standard he expects.

There aren't many team owners who would have the intestinal fortitude to pull off the changes that sent seismic shocks through the NASCAR world on Tuesday like Hendrick did.

But there also aren't any other owners with ten Sprint Cup trophies sitting on their mantle.

Posted on: November 21, 2010 5:42 pm

Charting the Chase - Homestead

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The curtain came down on the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and with it the championship dreams of everyone except Jimmie Johnson were officially to put to rest:

(1st) - Carl Edwards
Goes into the off-season with back-to-back victories to savor and has laid early claim as perhaps the man who could unseat Johnson's run for a sixth straight title.

(2nd) - Jimmie Johnson
Cool under pressure as always, Johnson did exactly what he needed to do Sunday with a nothing flashy second place finish to add to his unprecedented assault on the NASCAR record book.

(3rd) - Kevin Harvick
Didn't get the help he needed to make the run from third to the title but the Richard Childress Racing turnaround story was still impressive in 2010.

(8th) - Tony Stewart
A top ten finish something to build on in what ultimately will be remembered as a disappointing championship season for Stewart that never got back on track after he ran out of fuel while leading in the New Hampshire Chase opener.

(9th) - Matt Kenseth
Did his usual consistency act to make the Chase but will need to up his game some in order to do more than simply qualify for the playoffs in 2011.

(10th) - Greg Biffle
Gave Roush Fenway Racing more to celebrate with wins this season and another consistent finish on Sunday.

(12th) - Clint Bowyer
The "What Might Have Been" thoughts have to be on Bowyer's mind as the off-season begins.

(14th) - Denny Hamlin
Fell short of his prediction a year ago that he would win this year's title but not by much. Hamlin established himself as one of the sport's powerhouses this year and expect him to be a serious contender for the 2011 crown.

(18th) - Kurt Busch
End of an era as Busch drove his final race in the Penske Racing Miller Lite Dodge on Sunday before moving over to the team's No. 22 Shell/Penzoil Dodge in 2011.

(31st) - Jeff Burton
Had a fast race car but slapped the wall hard enough to damage the Caterpillar Chevrolet enough to end any chance of contending.

(32nd) - Kyle Busch
His run at a three-peat weekend ended at after making contact with Kevin Harvick and the incident has more than a few fans salivating over a continued feud in 2011.

(37th) - Jeff Gordon
Blown engine ended Gordon's season without a notch in the win column and punctuated what ultimately be remembered as a disappointing campaign.
Posted on: November 14, 2010 6:38 pm

Charting the Chase - Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. - You could probably hear the sound of high five slaps from NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach Sunday after the checkered flag flew in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are separated by only 46 with the top two only fifteen apart - the closest margin in the history of the Chase format:

(1st) - Carl Edwards

Made a big statement over the weekend with his Nationwide and Sprint Cup race sweep that he'll be a championship contender in 2011 and Roush Fenway Racing is back on track from its early season problems.

(4th) - Greg Biffle

Another Roush Ford with a top five finish and is certainly someone to watch next week at the Homestead finale where Biffle has been very tough throughout his Cup career.

(5th) - Jimmie Johnson

Somehow coaxed his last tank of fuel to the end to avoid devastation and those who tried to bury the four-time champ saw another example of why that's never a very good idea.

(6th) - Kevin Harvick

What looked like a disastrous mistake when a lug nut was left off on a pit stop turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the fuel cycle came back around and Harvick was able to outlast others who were forced to stop of gas in the closing laps.

(7th) - Matt Kenseth

Gave Roush three cars in the top ten and someone else to watch try and steal the thunder away from the title contenders with a win next Sunday in Homestead.

(9th) - Kurt Busch

A top ten confidence builder was what the Miller Lite team needed after struggling mightily the last few weeks.

(11th) - Jeff Gordon

The "old" 48 pit crew was serviceable but not outstanding. Gordon had an ill-handling car most of the day and did well to muster the 11th place run.

(12th) - Denny Hamlin

Had the point lead by the neck until the fuel mileage game bit Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford and a dominating day ended in a very disappointing 12th place finish that saw the series top spot nearly slip out of their hands.

(13th) - Kyle Busch

Challenged teammate Hamlin for the lead at one point but slid back as the race wore on.

(17th) - Tony Stewart

Has not had much to shout about since early in the Chase and a less than stellar finish at a track Stewart considers one of his favorites.

(19th) - Jeff Burton

A much less eventful day than Burton's afternoon in Texas a week ago but never really in contention for anything but a top twenty finish.

(21st) - Clint Bowyer

Endured an afternoon of scrapes and tangles with a battered car finally coming home outside the top twenty.

Posted on: November 7, 2010 7:26 pm

Charting the Chase - Texas

If you missed Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway you have my apologies. The AAA texas 500 had just about anything a race fan could want and then some including a shake-up of the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings with only two races to go:

(1st) - Denny Hamlin
Became first driver to sweep Texas since Carl Edwards in 2008 and in the process took over the Sprint Cup point lead by 33 over Jimmie Johnson. The good news for Hamlin is the driver leading the points with two races to go has won every Chase since its inception in 2004.

(2nd) - Matt Kenseth
Showed his usual Texas magic and nearly pulled off the victory if not for Hamlin's thrilling pass for the lead on the next to last lap. Kenseth now has four second place Texas finishes.

(5th) - Greg Biffle
Looked to have the race in hand until transmission problems cost Biffle a gear and shuffled him back on the last restart when he couldn't accelerate away from the pack.

(6th) - Kevin Harvick
Battled back from early race issues including a disagreement with crew chief Gil Martin on tire strategy. Made contact with the fourth turn wall inside twenty laps that cost Harvick much-needed speed and put him into hang on mode.

(7th) - Clint Bowyer
Followed up his Talladega win a week ago with a somewhat quiet yet consistent afternoon to hammer down another top ten finish and add to the "What Might Have Been" file.

(9th) - Jimmie Johnson
Had his pit crew changed in mid-race when the 48 bunch was swapped with teammate Jeff Gordon's team, a move that did pay dividends with better stops in the second half of the race than what Johnson endured early on Sunday. But the disappointing afternoon cost Johnson the point lead and maybe some morale within his team.

(11th) - Tony Stewart
In the mix near the end of the race but not much of a day for Stewart who was a pre-race pick in the garage area Sunday by many after a strong Saturday practice showing.

(19th) - Carl Edwards
Saturday's Nationwide Series race winner could not back up the performance and has now reached the two year mark of being winless in the Sprint Cup Series.

(24th) - Kurt Busch
Was in trouble with handling issues from the start of the race and was forced to endure a mediocre outing with another finish well outside of contention.

(32nd) - Kyle Busch
Spun out, was penalized for speeding on pit road, was parked for two laps after making an obscene gesture at a NASCAR official and at the end of the day was never in contention despite have a very fast race car.

(36th) - Jeff Burton
Was involved in the day's biggest fireworks when he made contact with the rear of Jeff Gordon's car sending the No. 24 Chevrolet hard into the turn two wall. Gordon took great exception to the incident and confronted Burton on the backstretch with the two exchanging severals swings and shoves. Burton took blame for the incident but both showed emotions not usually on display from the two veterans.

(37th) - Jeff Gordon
Perhaps it was a season-s worth of frustration that finally boiled over but for whatever reason, Gordon's outburst was unlike anything ever seen in his long Sprint Cup career including his Bristol pit road tangle with Matt Kenseth a few years back (when Gordon did keep his helmet on by the way).

Category: Auto Racing
Tags: NASCAR, Texas
Posted on: October 31, 2010 5:52 pm
Edited on: October 31, 2010 5:53 pm

Charting the Chase - Talladega

The race thought of as the "Wild Card" of the Chase was just that - pretty wild, especially at the finish. When the smoke cleared (literally) the championship standings were the closest with seven races in the book since the Chase was introduced in 2004:
(1st) - Clint Bowyer
How important is that 150 point penalty Bowyer was assessed after the New Hampshire infractions? He has no chance of winning this year's championship but enjoyed a sweet Halloween treat with his win Sunday at Talladega.

(2nd) - Kevin Harvick
Somehow brought his battered car home to a runner-up finish behind his Richard Childress Racing teammate Bowyer to slice into Jimmie Johnson's Chase lead and prove he will be a player in the title fight right down to the bitter end.

(7th) - Jimmie Johnson
Tried to work some late race magic with a two car draft to the front with teammate Jeff Gordon but came up short of stealing a win after playing it safe all afternoon.

(8th) - Jeff Gordon
Worked perfectly together with Johnson until engine problems forced Gordon to drop off the pace. Was able to rally back for the top ten finish but was in contention for a whole lot more.

(16th) - Matt Kenseth
Found a strange partner early in the race in Chevrolet driver Jeff Burton who helped push Kenseth's Ford to the front. Was forced to settle for a middle of the pack finish.

(17th) - Carl Edwards
Considering how past Talladega experiences have gone including crashing a teammate a few years ago and almost winding up in the grandstands after his celebrated crash with Brad Keselowski, maybe a 17th place finish isn't so bad after all.

(19th) - Greg Biffle
Had flashes of drafting to the front of the field but couldn't find that definitive partner to make a difference.

(25th) - Kyle Busch
Actually worked with former arch-rival David Reutimann in a two-car drafting effort that got Busch to the lead at one point. Faded back late.

(30th) - Kurt Busch
Strong effort early on made Busch a solid pick as possible winner. But fizzled at the close of the race and the last lap melee handed him a second straight 30th place finish.

(31st) - Tony Stewart
Somehow made it back to the lead lap after an early cut tire sent Stewart to pit road and two laps behind the field. Now enough to come back all the way.

(41st) - Jeff Burton
Had the same power as RCR teammates Bowyer and Harvick but the end results much different. Looked capable of winning until inadvertent tap from Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his day.
Category: Auto Racing
Tags: NASCAR, Talladega
Posted on: October 30, 2010 10:38 am
Edited on: October 30, 2010 10:41 am

Thanks Hunter

The passing of long-time NASCAR official Jim Hunter is more than the sad loss of a family man who spent his life contributing to the world of racing. It's also the the end of an era to be sure.

Hunter (no one who knew him well called him Jim) was as Old School as they come, a former sports writer who moved into the PR and track management game at his beloved Darlington Raceway before heading up NASCAR's public relations efforts for years. With Hunter it was all about the relationship - between drivers, media, track presidents, PR reps hell even maintenance people. A smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a dirty joke or two and a smile was how Hunter got the job done. And he did it in a way that will be sorely missed in today's very non-personal age of iPhones, Blackberries and Twitter.

The official obituary documents all of Hunter's achievements in his long storied career. His six decades in the sport, countless journalism awards and accolades for his time as a newspaper reporter and author, the accomplishments in the managerial portion of his career at Darlington and with NASCAR. If there was an honor to be given working at any level of the sport, Hunter earned it. 

But it was Hunter's style and low-key demeanor that will be remembered most from those who were fortunate to be personally touched by the man.

He sounded like one part Foghorn Leghorn and two parts the KFC Colonel with his deep Southern twang, which was most of the time delivered in a soft spoken manner but one that when it was needed got the point across. He was often assigned to be NASCAR's spokesperson and explain policy changes, rules interpretations or penalties assessed and did so in a conversational and effective manner.

Over the years Hunter helped countless people inside the industry get their starts in the business of NASCAR, public relations and journalism and he seemed very pleased being able to mentor not just younger people but even those with experience. 

There are no doubt thousands of stories of how Hunter helped individuals over the years and yes, I have one as well.

My first job that actually paid me to go to the race track came back when while still a student at Northern Illinois University I was hired as track announcer and public relations director at Rockford Speedway, the legendary short track in the northwest corner of Illinois. Twice a week I'd go to the track and announce the Wednesday and Saturday night shows on the track's PA system while also writing race story summaries and pre-race press releases for local media as well as the then myriad of weekly racing trade papers.

Simply put it was a dream come true for a kid who grew up in the sport.

Rockford was and still is a part of NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series, an umbrella program that in its hey day had more than 100 local tracks under its sanction with drivers eligible for a national points fund. Hunter, then NASCAR's Vice President of Administration, oversaw that program as well as many other things on his plate in those days.

I had the opportunity to meet him on one of his trips to check things out at Rockford and we hit it off, thanks in no small part to my uncle "Tiger" Tom Pistone's tenure in NASCAR back in the 1950s and 60s, whose sometimes colorful exploits were covered and shared by Hunter in his previous role as a sportswriter.

One thing led to another and after about a year when my education was complete, I got a call from Daytona Beach with Hunter on the other end of the line asking if I'd be interested in working for NASCAR, while still keeping my Rockford responsibilities. I was offered the media relations director position for what was known as the Busch All-Star Tour, a dirt late model series sanctioned by NASCAR that ran about 16 races throughout the Midwest.

The answer was of course emphatically yes and I began an adventure that led me to meet people and experience things that until then I could only have imagined. A guy by the name of John Darby, today's Sprint Cup Series Director, was the head tech guy of the tour, and I spent three summers working together, traveling around the country and learning about the sport in a way like no other.

Along the way there was Hunter, showing up unannounced at races, offering his advice and counsel, stressing he was only a phone call away and helping shape a career that today continues to be blessed.

There are thousands of others who no doubt have a similar tale to tell.

His adoring family and the legion of those who were touched by his intelligence and kindness are his legacy.

Thanks Hunter.
Category: Auto Racing
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