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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is Nextel Cup really that wide open?

People often claim that Nextel Cup races are more competitive than ever. More teams have a chance at winning any given race. Parity works for the NFL, and it sounds good when you think that 15-25 drivers have a shot to win any given race. But is it really true?

Comparing the seasons back to 2000, the answer appears to be no. In 2001, 19 different drivers won a Cup race. 2006 had 13 different winners, following a downward trend since 2001. It’s a gradual decline in the total number of different drivers, but the numbers show fewer drivers with a greater share of wins.

The other noteworthy trend is the decline in the number of teams that win a race each year. Last year Roush had five drivers win one or more races for a total of 15 wins. This year Hendrick Motorsports four cars won a combined 9 races. The trend makes sense. One organization gains an edge and each driver benefits. Likewise a team that is struggling hurts every driver in the stable.

Five years is a pretty small sample size, but in this case it lines up with a significant development in Nascar: The multi-car team. Sure Hendrick and Roush raced multiple cars as early as the mid-80’s, but the trend truly gathered steam at the beginning of this decade. This is when Childress, Ganassi and Penske began racing multiple teams. Other teams like Gibbs and Evernham have enjoyed greater success with additional cars too (strangely Penske has downsized). Next year DEI, Ginn Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing will also have three teams. In half a decade three teams has become the minimum requirement for top flight race teams.


Drivers w wins

Owners w wins

% wins for top 3 Owners

% of top 5’s for winning drivers




































In the age of multi-car teams, it's probably more relevant to look at the number of teams that scored victories. The last single-car team to win was PPI Racing in 2003. That was the famous Darlington race when Ricky Craven narrowly edged Kurt Busch by .01 seconds. The average number of winning teams per season is 9 in the last seven years. That falls in line with the number of winning drivers in the years preceeding. Again, this makes sense. Ten years ago there were 8-10 winning owners that ran one, maybe two cars. Now there are the same number of winning owners, except the wins are spread across several cars from one team. Where Jeff Gordon won 13 races in 1998, now Hendrick Motorsports has 9 wins among four different drivers.

The third column shows the win share among the top three teams each year. In 2006, Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress had a combined 22 wins. In 2005 Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs scored 30 of the 36 possible wins. So it is not really true that every race is up for grabs among 15 drivers. It is actually limited to drivers on three or four of the strong teams.

The last column shows the percentage of top fives that winning drivers capture. If you consistently run in the top five, the chances for winning improve. It was surprising that this number decreased as well. If there are certain cars winning the majority of the race, it makes sense that these same cars would be in the top five the majority of the time. So while it is harder to win a race, the chances of a non-winner getting a top five appear to be better.

As I mentioned before it is a very small sample size to make a serious conclusion. It does help to debunk the myth that Nextel Cup is wide open. It has always had a few teams that are ahead of everyone else, and still appears that way. At some point I'd like to expand the stats to include more years to see if this really does make sense.


The other 33: 2006 Season

11: Tony Stewart (5 wins, 15 top 5’s, 19 top tens). Second in wins, tied for first in top tens, but too many poor finishes this summer cost him a chance at the Chase. An obvious title favorite next year.

12: Carl Edwards (0,10,20) As charmed as his 2005 was, 2006 was the complete opposite. Roush was missing something this year and Edwards' frustration seemed to surface. Hard crashes, confrontations with other drivers and crew chief changes all combined for a cocktail of disappointment.

13: Greg Biffle (2, 8,15). Highlight: Repeating at Darlingon in May. Remember at the beginning of the season, everyone kept waiting for Biffle to put it together? It never really happened and crew chief Doug Richert took the fall. Next year will be very interesting.

14: Casey Mears (0,2,8). At least he finally won a Nascar race, albeit a Busch Series race. Mears began 2006 with three top tens and didn’t his fourth until the fifteenth race. He now leaves a 14th place ride for a 15th place ride.

15: Brian Vickers (1,5,9). Vickers can't get a break. Red Bull hires him for next year so Hendrick locks him out of meetings. He finally wins a race, but at the expense of a teammate. Aside from his win, his numbers are practically identical to 2005. It will be a major feat to match them in '07.

16: Kurt Busch (1,7,12) Someone at Penske secretly switched Ryan Newman's cars with Busch's. Only one win but six poles in his first year in the #2 car ensured Miller would make the Bud Shootout. It was a pretty quiet year off the track for Busch too.

17: Clint Bowyer (0,4,11) Bowyer took full advantage of the RCR resurgence. From opening with a sixth at Daytona, Bowyer ran up front more often than not, and was the biggest surprise among the rookies.

18: Ryan Newman (0,2,7) At least last year he won six Busch races. His first full-time season without a win in either Busch or Cup. Newman and Kurt Busch are both top tier drivers, but Penske's subpar gear holds them back.

19: Martin Truex Jr-(0,2,5) Not the year expected, but he finished strong. DEI's equipment has improved since the start of the year, which really helped Truex close out the year. For context Kyle Busch was the top rookie last year at 20th.

20: Scott Riggs-(0,1,8) Riggs wins the award for most improved driver. The biggest key was finishing races. He had 24 lead lap finishes compared to 22 in his first two years combined.
21: Bobby Labonte (0,3,8) Basically the same numbers as last year (0,4,7), but in lesser equipment. Top fives and top tens don’t show the serious improvement and solid year for Petty Enterprises and Labonte. PE had 2 top tens total last year.
22: Elliott Sadler (0,1,7) Aside from the plate tracks, Sadler didn't have much to get excited about this year. A full year with Evernham should get Sadler back to the front consistently.

23: Dale Jarrett (0,1,4) Didn’t score his first top five until Kansas. Jarrett had a distracting year: moving to MWR, crew chief Slugger Labbe suspended and later released, Yates Racing struggling, Elliot Sadler moving to Evernham mid-year. Still, his UPS spots were the best ad campaign of the year.

24: Reed Sorenson (0,1,5) A pretty typical season for most rookies. He had moments of hope followed by heaps of humility and crumpled sheet metal.

25. Jamie McMurray (0,3,7) Bummer dude. As many DNF's (7) as Derrick Cope. (Full Disclosure: Cope only ran 9 races).

26. Dave Blaney (0,1,2) A top five at Richmond was the highlight for the underdog Blaney. With manufacturer support, Blaney will be the most competitive Toyota driver in '07.

27. Joe Nemechek (0,0,2) For the first time in years, Front Row Joe never threatened to win a race. He only led 10 laps all year and didn't get a top ten until the 31st race. Next year Nemechek begins with zero owners' points, making his job even tougher.

28. Jeff Green (0,0,2) For the third straight year, Green improved his points ranking by one place. Start engraving that 2033 Nextel Cup.

29. JJ Yeley (0,0,3) Why can't you be more like Denny?

30. Robby Gordon (0,1,3) Gordon had the most DNF's (9) of all drivers. Still, it was a solid step towards success for the one car outfit.

31. Ken Schrader (0,0,2) At least Schrader has some of the best sponsors. From M&M's, Schwan's, Red Baron and now Little Debbie, is it any wonder Schrader looks like he does?

32. Kyle Petty (0,0,2) Finishing in the top 35 in points was a huge boost for Petty's team.

33. David Stremme (0,0,0) He had 6 top 20's during the Chase. It doesn't sound great until you consider how terrible their year started.

34. Sterling Marlin (0,0,1) Marlin had only one top ten, fell outside the top 35 and struggled to attract sponsors. At least Stremme didn't do any better.

35. Tony Raines (0,0,1) Hall of Fame Racing just wanted to get established inside the top 35 in their first year. Raines did his part with only one DNF.

36. Travis Kvapil (0,0,0) Cal Wells and PPI go out with a whimper. Kvapil didn't have any top 15's, but his average finish (28.2) was better than Bobby Hamilton Jr last year (32.5) in the same ride.

37. Michael Waltrip (0,0,0) Sponsors obviously love Waltrip pitching their products. You know what else sponsors love? Finishing better than 30.

38. Scott Wimmer (0,0,0) A rough year for Wimmer. He has a chance to rebound next year with the top Busch program RCR.

39. Jeremy Mayfield (0,0,0) Do you think Stewart loaned Ray Evernham a Mayfield pinata?

40. Kevin LePage (0,0,0) His season high 21st at Bristol went completely unnoticed. He still lasted longer at BAM racing than Brent Sherman.

41. Terry Labonte (0,1,1,) A nice farewell season for the original Iceman. He came pretty close to winning at Sonoma and not so close at other tracks.

42. David Gilliland (0,0,0) An amazing rise for someone few had heard of before the Kentucky Busch race. His pole at Talladega gets him into the Bud Shootout where he'll have an equal car to anyone in the field.

43. Kenny Wallace (0,0,0) To make 17 races is an accomplishment for Wallace and Furniture Row Racing. No knock on Wallace, but it will be impressive if he makes 10 next year.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Looking towards 2007

2006 is finished. There were plenty of highlights, but something was missing. Every milestone or interesting story was countered with less appealing news. There were great stories like Jeff Burton winning his first race in five years. There were also several less thrilling races that featured very little racing. NBC got record numbers for the Daytona 500, but almost every other race saw declined ratings. Several drivers changed teams and six prominent rookies debuted. Aside from that, there weren’t any major rule changes: no new races or playoff formats. In short, 2006 looked a lot like 2005 and that may have cultivated boredom in some fans.

If change is the answer, then 2007 promises a banner year. NASCAR is introducing a new car, a new manufacturer, and a new TV network. There are several new teams and drivers, including new stars from other racing series. There will also be changes to the point system. It might be too many changes at once for the occasional fan to stay interested.

Car of Tomorrow: It's not an exhibit at Epcot Center, it's the name of NASCAR great experiment aiming for increased safety and better racing rests on the new car design. Many owners, drivers, writers and fans think it’s a bad idea. The spring Bristol race is the first race for the new car. What happens if there are problems at Bristol? Will teams have to bring completely different cars to Martinsville the next week? Phoenix will be the first real aero-sensitive track, and presents the first true test. How will teams with strong short and flat programs like Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, or Denny Hamlin react to having their best cars obsolete?

Two years ago NASCAR made significant changes to the rear spoiler and added softer tires. As a result, two teams, Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, figured out the changes quicker and won eight of the first nine races. Someone will solve the CoT puzzle next year too and take off in a similar way.

Toyota's Cup Debut: As if owners and fans weren't complaining enough about the Car of Tomorrow, there is also the entry of the Japanese manufacturer to Nextel Cup. Two brand new teams plus Bill Davis Racing will drive Toyota Camry's next year. People are concerned about how much money Toyota can throw at their program. Others are upset that a foreign make is allowed entry to NASCAR. Whatever stance someone takes toward Toyota, the actual effects of the Japanese automaker won't be fully seen until 2008 at the earliest. The most important goal next year is getting cars qualified. Only Dave Blaney and Dale Jarrett are guaranteed to start the first five races next year.

ESPN replaces NBC: 2006 saw ratings drop for almost every race. Will a change in networks make any difference? One theory is that the sport’s audience has peaked. Promotions will certainly increase compared to a lame-duck network switching its efforts to the NFL. As much as fans complain about the coverage, my guess is most people will watch the races regardless of the network. Monday Night Football didn’t see any change in ratings when John Madden joined ABC, and I doubt NASCAR will be different. The occasional fan watches because there is something interesting happening on the track, not because of Brent Musberger, Wally Dallenbach or Jeff Hammond.

Rookie class: It’s not as deep as the heralded 2006 class, but this year has plenty of interesting stories. Juan Pablo Montoya will get the most attention and for good reason. Everyone wants to know how a Formula One driver will do in stock cars. AJ Allmendinger is another successful open-wheel driver that will have a yellow rookie stripe next year. David Ragan and David Reutimann both jump from the Truck series. One has 38 NASCAR starts; the other has 107 among the three touring series. Two other rookies will get part-time rides and full-time apprenticeships. Regan Smith, not David Ragan, will share a ride with Mark Martin at Ginn Motorsports. Meanwhile Jon Wood will make his historic debut next year in his family's number 21 car.

The rookie that might surprise the most is DEI's Paul Menard. Menard was one of two non-Cup drivers to win a Busch race in 2006 and is the most Cup-ready driver of the rookie class. Whoever rises to the top of the rookie class one thing is certain: Crashes and angry veterans are certain byproducts with so many rookies in the field.

If change is the answer to more excitement then indeed 2007 will be wild. Of course change in itself is not the answer. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Return to Posting

After ten days, sleeping in six different beds and three Thanksgiving meals, I have returned from my trip to Minnesota. I apologize for the lack (actually, total void) of posts. It's funny how being out of the office, means your "hobby" takes a hit too. I really did try, but had some technology issues. I hope to have some actual substance by tomorrow and get back rolling again. In the meantime, maybe a baseball article will suffice. No? Come back tomorrow, I guess.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Three Drivers that want to keep racing

Martin Truex Jr: After a frustrating season, the #1 team is finishing strong. Dale Earnhardt Jr says he will have the best car at Homestead. Both DEI teams are running well and should be solid next year too.

Carl Edwards: His worst finish during the Chase is 18th. He has 19 top tens this year, but 6 in the last nine races alone. I don’t think it matters much who his crew chief is. It seems like Edwards’ (and probably Biffle’s) problems stem from equipment more than anything.

Ken Schrader: Schrader simply likes to race. Next year he will share his ride with Jon Wood, so this is essentially his last full-time year. Much like Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte, Schrader’s full-time career will end with very little attention.

And three that already have their hunting trips planned:
Michael Waltrip: With new ownership and an under funded team, Waltrip was expected to struggle this year. Struggle doesn’t describe the complete disaster of 2006. Waltrip had one top 15 finish, missed two races (plus buying his way into another), had 7 DNF’s and an average finish of 30.9. At least he can enjoy a Whopper, a Coke, a slice of Domino’s and look to next year.

Ryan Newman: Zero wins, two top fives and two poles. After a third at Daytona, things never got better for Newman. The Intrepid experiment can’t entirely explain the struggles of this team. Newman has the talent to win anywhere. Right now anywhere sounds like a beach far away.

Ray Evernham: Sure Kasey Kahne won six races and made the Chase, but he also had 5 DNF’s and several hard crashes. Scott Riggs sprinkled good runs (7 top tens, 2 poles) with frustrating finishes (8 sub 30 finishes). Oh yeah, there was also that whole ugly Jeremy Mayfield episode.

Scenarios for Jimmie Johnson this weekend:
He finishes 12th or better he is guaranteed to win the title.
He finishes 20th or better and neither Kevin Harvick nor Denny Hamlin can catch him.
He finishes 32nd or better and still wins, because face it, Matt Kenseth won’t run better than 13th.

- Last week many Nascar websites and blogs were covering the fluffy Jeff Gordon-Ingrid Van DenBosch wedding this week. It has very little interest to me, but at least it involves one of the most famous drivers in the sport. Nascar.com and Duane Cross decided why stop there? Cross wrote nearly 500 words on Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. This has zero to do with Nascar and is awful, even by Nascar.com’s standards.

-Next year in select races there could be as many as 17 drivers with 3 years experience or less. That could get interesting. Consider the weekends when Regan Smith drives for Mark Martin and Jon Wood replaces Ken Schrader. That’s trading 1370+ starts for two drivers yet to make their Cup debuts. For context, there are 12 such drivers this year. In 2004 and 2005 there were 10 each year. What’s more, there will be eight drivers in their first full year in Cup (David Reutimann, Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard, Wood, David Gilliland, Juan-Pablo Montoya, and AJ Allmendinger).Trouble in Turn 2 indeed.

Finally, I am traveling home to Minneapolis for the week. I hope to post daily, but am not sure I will get to watch the race. I am celebrating Thanksgiving on Sunday and it would be poor form to pass on turkey. On a side note, will Banquet air their pot-pie commercial with Tony Stewart this weekend? I have to think this is the worst two weeks for processed turkey product sales.

If posting turns sporadic next week, be assured it will resume when I’m back. I have lots of big picture NASCAR stuff to take on to get through the off-season. In the meantime enjoy the race and your own Thanksgiving time. Thanks to those that consistently read my writing, I do appreciate it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What if…

Matt Kenseth pitted at Dover?

Kenseth dominated at Dover, leading 215 laps and was out front as the final caution waved with 78 laps left. Kenseth stayed out while most cars pitted. Kenseth ran out of gas while running second to Jeff Burton and finished 10th. Had Kenseth pitted he would have finished no worse than second, and it’s doubtful Burton would have caught him on equal tires. It was a difference of 56 points, meaning Kenseth would trail Jimmie Johnson by 7 points instead of 63.

Dale Earnhardt Jr stayed on track at Martinsville?

Junior spun late in the race while running 7th. His car had run in the top five most of the day. He got too aggressive, made contact with Kasey Kahne and spun late. While his aggressive attitude is admirable, the move cost him at least 50 points to the leaders.

Mark Martin had a turn signal at Lowes?

Then maybe JJ Yeley wouldn’t have plowed into Martin while he tried to pit and demolished his best speedway car in the process. That sent the 6 team into a tailspin that ended all chances of challenging for the title.

Jeff Gordon’s team had quality control?

Gordon’s fuel pump went kaput at Kansas and lost an engine at Lowe’s. He was running in the top ten in both races, when problems out of his control struck. His average finish in the other seven races is 9.4.

There is a big problem with what-ifs. Two of Jimmie Johnson’s bad finishes would fall into the what-if category too. With different outcomes at Kansas and Talladega, Johnson would have completely obliterated the competition. He was running first at Kansas when he had to pit late and was caught speeding, relegating him to 12th. Had the caution flown for either Kasey Kahne’s spin or Gordon’s speeding penalty, (as it should have), Johnson probably finishes no worse than second. That cost him 49-59 points.

The next week he was about to pass Earnhardt for the lead on the last lap at Talladega when Brian Vickers spun him and Earnhardt out to win the race. Johnson again would have finished first or second. That cost him 79-89 points.

Two races costing a total of 128-148 points. That’s nearly a whole race. That means instead of his current streak of top 2 finishes would be at 7 and the Chase might be clinched by now. If this shows one thing it is how absolutely dominating the 48 team has been.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Chevy is dominating this year. The Bowtie has 23 of 35 wins, plus seven drivers in the Chase. It makes sense in a lot of ways. There are almost as many Chevy teams than the other two manufacturers combined. Of the cars that have made at least 15 races, Chevy has 20, Dodge has 13 and Ford has 8. Sheer volume helps give Chevy the upper hand, but also the strength of the teams. Right now Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress are the three strongest teams in the sport and all three are Chevy-powered. Last year Roush was strong, scoring 16 wins, but Chevy’s stable still took the Manufacture’s Championship. In fact, Chevy has won the last four and 8 of the last 12. This year Chevy’s dominance is more pronounced because Roush Racing took a step back.

So it is in a Chevy-dominated scene that Toyota will enter next year. A lot of owners, writers and fans speak with an almost xenophobic tone when discussing Toyota coming to Cup. Maybe they will eventually dominate all of NASCAR. Maybe they will outspend everyone and destroy the financial model of the sport. That can not be an excuse for not competing in the short term.

Whatever success Toyota eventually sees, it will not happen for at least a few years. Which means existing teams should have an advantage in the short term. Looking at the Dodge and Ford teams, they are trying their best to squander any edge over Toyota they have.

-Robert Yates Racing began falling behind technology last year and everything snowballed this year. Both drivers are gone (sure Dale Jarrett has one race left, but hasn’t been competitive for most of the year), giant sponsor UPS is leaving with Jarrett, and there is serious talk about Yates only fielding one car next year.

-In a time when teams are scrambling to expand, Penske Racing contracted one of their three teams last year. Now a two car outfit, they have one win in 2006. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman have a total of 9 top five finishes. Penske cars averaged 17.5 per year since 2002. Wasting time perfecting the Dodge Intrepid set the team back this year. Now crew chief Matt Borland may leave for Toyota’s Red Bull team.

-Chip Ganassi’s team hasn’t won a race in four years. His 2007 driver lineup will have a combined 77 races of experience heading to Daytona. Factor in the inconsistency of the cars and it’s hard to imagine great improvement next year. Oh yeah, and there was also the bizarre handling of Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears last year.

-Even Roush Racing seems slightly confused. Roush had five cars in the Chase last year and won 44% of the races in ’05. The Ford team also won the Cup in ’03 and ’04. Several times Roush drivers were literally taking turns leading laps. This year there features crew chief swaps, three winless drivers, and only two drivers in the Chase.

With so many large teams struggling, things look a lot easier for a new manufacturer to enter the sport. Maybe Jack Roush should worry about his own company instead of crying foul on Toyota. All the manufacturers are in the sport ultimately to win and succeed. Toyota's methods might be different, but the goal is the same. Whatever view is taken regarding Toyota, this much is clear: The more bumbling teams that reside in NASCAR, the easier Toyota’s job is.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Other 33: Phoenix

With 8 Chasers in the top ten, there were few chances to get on camera for the other 33. Unless they were crashing.

5. Carl Edwards-Edwards/Osborne 2.0. As Osborne noted, Wally Brown and crew built the Phoenix car, which will probably be ignored by many. Edwards can win with many crew chiefs, but he can't win with Roush's current cars.

8. Kurt Busch-For the 95th time this year a top five run was halted by problems in the pits. At least when he’s on the track Busch has found some speed.

11. Brian Vickers-For the 95th time this year a top five run was halted by his usual fade (and no reason was mentioned on air). Vickers still rallied for a top 15.

12. Martin Truex Jr-It took longer than expected, but Truex is finally competitive nearly every week. Like many cars, he lost a lap early but came back strong.

14. Tony Stewart-Even Stewart doesn’t get camera time unless he’s winning a race. Even when he bumped McMurray his car wasn’t in the shot.

15. Ryan Newman-He hasn’t had a top ten since Bristol (8th) in August. He only has two poles all year.

16. David Gilliland-You just scored your second career top 20, what are you going to do now? I’m going to Gilliland!

17. Elliot Sadler-Sadler finished right behind his old 38 car. That probably tripped him out.

18. David Stremme-Excluding Kasey Kahne taking him out at Atlanta, Stremme is showing improvement. He has actually run better than Reed Sorenson down the stretch.

19. Joe Nemechek-Nemechek hovered in the top 15 all day, but got a piece of a late crash and had to repair damage.

20. JJ Yeley-When he is running Yeley shows improvement this year. The problem is he’s crashed a lot.

21. Tony Raines-Jeff Green was not happy with Raines after an incident. Since there weren’t replays, I don’t know what happened prior.

22. Scott Riggs-Evernham is still working on their flat 1-mile program. Riggs should be a contender next week at Homestead.

23. Dave Blaney-His future teammate Jeremy Mayfield failed to qualify at Phoenix. Expect this sentence to reappear next year too.

24. Ken Schrader-Next Sunday is likely Schrader’s last race as a full-time driver. He’ll split time with Jon Wood next year. Zero attention will be made of this.

25. Kyle Petty-Phoenix was his fourth straight lead lap finish. Considering where PE was the past few years, that’s relatively impressive.

26. Casey Mears-Ran most of the day in the teens and spun late. Will receive too much attention this week about his move to Hendrick.

27. Bobby Labonte-His finish breaks a 3-race streak of top ten finishes at Phoenix. Surprising he was never close to the top ten.

28. Ward Burton-Considering it took nearly two years for Burton to return to Cup racing, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that Morgan-McLure is his best option. It still surprises me though.

29. Reed Sorenson-In mid-summer few would have been surprised to see Sorenson win a race this year. That was a little premature for this year.

30. Travis Kvapil-Maybe he could attract sponsors by appealing to a hipper demographic. Change his name to T-Qwap.

31. Bill Elliott-Remember when Elliott was a hot commodity for open rides? It feels like a long time ago.

32. Robby Gordon-He hit a lot of cars, irritated a lot of drivers and didn’t finish very well.

33. Clint Bowyer-Ran in the top 15 the whole race, then got black flagged for smoking near the end. And that’s a terrible example for our youth.

34. Greg Biffle-Next year will be interesting. Mark Martin said Pat Tryson will make the 16 team much better next year.

35. Chad Chaffin-His 29.7 driver rating was awful, but he ran as many laps as Biffle and Bowyer.

36. Sterling Marlin-Marlin is this year’s Bobby Labonte. His car has radar that finds wrecks. That or a giant “crash magnet”. Or something like that.

37. Jeff Green-As he waited for Raines to drive by, it was strange that no one tried to restrain him. NBC was just waiting for Green to do something. What would happen if he flipped the 96 off?

39. Dale Jarrett-Yates can’t find someone willing to sponsor a 38th place car. Now there are rumors Yates may sell the owner’s points.

40. Jamie McMurray-After getting spun by Tony Stewart, “I’m buying my tools at Lowes.” A better shill would have added “my Irwin tools”.

41. Mike Bliss-Lost an engine late. Otherwise he may have finished 30th.

42. Michael Waltrip-Crashed and later lost an engine. Is Toyota watching the races this year?

43. Brandon Whitt-Whitt made his Cup debut, which lasted 123 laps. At least he made $61,286 for his effort.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

One more week of NBC's Coverage

Some random broadcasting thoughts from the Phoenix race:
-NBC pulls out new graphics and features with two races left. What a waste. It makes as much sense as the guy who parties for four years deciding to study for his final exams as a senior.

-Another nice job by NBC to feature Greg Biffle’s pit crew on camera. Too bad he was 3 laps down at the time.

-The Aflac trivia question this week: Who is the only 3-time Chase driver to not win a race during the Chase?
OK, there are only three drivers to make all three Chases, which they should know (Kenseth, Martin, Johnson). The announcers have a one in three chance. Obviously Johnson has won this year, now it’s 50/50. And three gentlemen that get paid to watch and talk Nascar guess Mark Martin. And then give up and ask for the answer (Matt Kenseth)

I'm not saying everyone should know the answer to this question, but if some geek on his couch can immediately shout out the correct answer, threee "experts" should at least be able to figure it out in a reasonable amount of time.

-Does it count as live racing when NBC does promos with the track in the background? If you can’t see the racing action it sounds a lot like a commercial.

-Wally Dallenbach gives great analysis and insight. Anytime he wants to stop groaning and saying “Whoa” whenever two cars get close to each other, that’s fine with me.

-I lost count the number of times they referred to Kenseth making apple pie out of mud pie. He took a 25th place car and finished 13th. That's not very amazing. It's even less amazing after you realize Kenseth lost 46 points to Johnson.

-Bill Weber setting next week's schedule, “…Assuming Jimmie Johnson is the leader and doesn’t win the lottery, he’ll be there on Sunday” Because Johnson winning the Pick 5 to win a million dollars changes his plans. Apparently Bill Mullet forgot Johnson can win over $8million next Sunday at Homestead. Maybe Weber will win the lotter and not be there on Sunday.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How is a Young Busch Supposed to Blossom?

Every Busch series owner is looking for the next Martin Truex Jr or Kyle Busch. In 2004 both jumped into top-flight equipment and immediately won races and challenged for championships. The problem is drivers like Truex and Busch don’t grow on trees (or shrubs). Most young drivers need time to develop. With numerous Cup drivers consistently racing in the Busch series, that development is tougher than ever.

8 Cup drivers are racing at least 85% of the schedule. Other drivers like Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Michael Waltrip drive in 20 or more races. The means at least 12 experienced drivers in excellent rides show up for every race. In fact the average number of Buschwhackers per race this year is 13.

This isn’t an attempt to point out the evils of Cup drivers in the Busch series. That is for another day. They are not breaking any rules, so don’t blame the drivers for wanting to run more races. Instead it shows the challenge rookie drivers face. Even in equal equipment, a veteran driver will have the upper hand almost every time. Buschwhackers have scored 31 of the 33 wins, 84% of the top fives and 72% of the top 10’s. That leaves rookies to scrap for top 15’s or top 20’s. In context, that is a good run for a first-year Busch driver.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for drivers like Mark McFarland and Burney Lamar to keep their rides. Todd Kluever will have a partial Busch schedule in ’07. Danny O’Quinn future is also unknown. Obviously any sponsor wants to see their car up front, but it is unreasonable to expect any of these drivers to consistently run up front.

Rookies need time; Truex and Busch were the exception not the norm. It is the same in other sports. Very few NBA rookies will come in and hold their own. There are very few Lebrons, Carmelos or Dwayne Wades. Most rookies need time to develop and adjust to the new level of competition.

Compare Paul Menard’s record to these rookies. He started very slowly, not picking up a top ten until his 48th Busch races. Since then, he has 30 top tens and his first win in the past year and a half. He is now the top Busch regular and has two consecutive top ten points finishes. It took a little bit of patience, but Menard is now ready for Nextel Cup racing.

Other Cup drivers like Kasey Kahne, JJ Yeley and Jimmie Johnson also struggled in Busch. Kahne had 1 top 10 in his first 20 races. To a lesser degree, Denny Hamlin didn’t run consistently in the top 10 until this year either.

Look at the four rookies and their top 15 and top 20 finishes.
McFarland (4 top 15’s, 7 top 20’s)
Lamar (6 top 15’s, 13 top 20’s)
Kluever (7 top 15’s, 14 top 20’s)
O’Quinn (10 top 15’s, 13 top 20’s)

In the current context, these numbers aren’t horrible. Each rookie went through a rough patch where they struggled. Each rookie showed a few bright spots too. Busch drivers typically need at least 30-40 starts to make an honest evaluation. McFarland got 21 and Lamar started 29. Kluever will make 35 this year, but it’s hard to imagine much improvement on a part-time schedule next year.

How can a driver gain any comfort, let alone experience, if they have no security? This falls on the owners like Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick and Jack Roush. Sponsors should have a say, not dictate what a team does. Owners must be able to lay out a long term plan and convince a sponsor to stick it out. Replacing one rookie with another is most likely not the answer for immediate success.

Bobby Labonte replaced Lamar for the balance of the season. That’s fine for the short term, but Labonte won’t drive the car next year. So now Harvick will either shuttle in various veterans like Ron Hornaday, or find another rookie to fill the seat. Another rookie means they will no doubt go through the same struggles. Had KHI stuck with Lamar, he may have progressed in his second year with the team. Instead of one year of growing pains, the team is now looking at two or more.

Another key note: KHI is not the same as RCR. Even Harvick has seen different results in his own cars than when he drives Childress’ #21 car. So while Clint Boywer immediately flourished as a rookie for Childress, Lamar was not in the same equipment. This is not to say Lamar and Bowyer are the same caliber driver, only to point out that Lamar is driving lesser cars.

The same goes for McFarland and JR Motorsports. JR Motorsports is a brand new team in the Busch series. McFarland certainly struggled during his time in the #88 car. He suffered an injury at the Milwaukee race and Martin Truex subbed for the next two races while McFarland recovered. After Truex picked up a top ten and a 16th, McFarland returned with improved results. In the next four races he scored an 11th, 16th, 25th and 17th. It was not enough to save his job as he was replaced at Watkins Glen by Truex.

In eight races, replacement Shane Huffman has not done much better than McFarland. He has one top five, but also crashed out of three races. Maybe Earnhardt feels Huffman has more potential, but so far he hasn’t shown it.

Another perplexing thing about the relative impatience of these teams is they are a few of the teams that could afford to be patient. Harvick and Jr both own relatively infant teams with no immediate Cup aspirations, and both are sponsor friendly. Neither was planning on contending for a Championship regardless what driver was in the seat. And yet both teams got antsy at the first sign of trouble.

There is always talk about the driver shortage and where will tomorrow’s drivers come from. With impatient owners and sponsors, it’s no wonder. There are plenty of problems with the Busch series that need fixing. Impatience from the owners only exacerbates the problems.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Jr is an Old Gun and other thoughts

Apparently Dale Earnhardt Jr will not be a part of the Gillette Young Guns next year. Probably the best news is that dreadful "Newman!" commercial won't air past this November. The Young Guns commercials were fine when there were three or four in rotation. This year they made one spot and beat it into the ground. Maybe the second one was supposed to air when Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray or Carl Edwards scored a win and they're still waiting.

What does this mean in the scheme of things? Can the Young Guns replace him with David Reutimann? Will he start a rival faction at Schick, teaming up with Paul Menard and Reed Sorenson? Is he finally free to grow a killer beard? Did he or Gillette realize that he is 32?

Personally, I think Gillette denied Jr's Mach Ocho idea. Rumors then surfaced about him wanting to bring back the Mach 3, which didn't fit their marketing plan.

Other Thoughts:
-The top four in points average finishes during the Chase:
Johnson (12.1), Kenseth (11.1), Earnhardt JR (12.7), Hamlin (12.5).

That's pretty close for only eight races. Now look at the bonus points:
Johnson (40), Kenseth (30), Earnhardt Jr (30), Hamlin (15).

The two numbers combined give a quick and dirty picture why Johnson is leading Kenseth by 17 points. And also how important the bonus points actually are. Kenseth has been very keen to time his pit stops in order to lead laps in races like Kansas, Charlotte and Texas where he is not a frontrunner. Those 15 points may be crucial in the end. That also means Benny Parsons is right, when he's always babbling about "He wants to get those five bonus points for leading a lap" (he says it verbatim at every chance).

-Today is election day. I live in Oregon where you have to mail in your ballot before today. I forgot, which is probably best anyway. I'm not proud admitting I have very little idea of what’s going on. I have tried in the past but end up burned out on all the commercials, posturing and mudslinging. I attempt to listen to the issues, but typically the arguments degenerate into petty arguments. I'd rather argue about Pettys I guess.

I approach elections in the same way that most people regard the NCAA basketball tournament. The majority of the country is caught up in this event, so I’d better cast my lot too. I smirk or have mild irritation at the people that fill out their brackets based on 30 minutes of research. And that is what my ballot would have amounted to today. It's not that I don't care what happens in my country or even my state, but man it's hard work cutting through the BS. It's still not an excuse and I'm going to start researching my ballot for '08 immediately.

Trivia Question:
The top three leaders in total laps in '06 are Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Who is fourth?

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Other 33: Texas

Did you know that every Nextel Cup race has 43 drivers entered? It's true, which means 76% of the drivers aren't in the Chase. Sometimes they even have more compelling stories than the Chasers:

Tony Stewart (1st) - His driver rating was 149.7.The only time he was passed was during green flag stops, or someone taking 2 tires. Dominant.

Clint Bowyer (5th)-Bowyer is getting better and better. He is the most surprising rookie to me.

Casey Mears(7th)-Mears quietly continued his success at Texas with another top 10.

Kurt Busch(8th)-His season in a nutshell: Qualify well, lead early, pit road mistake, spend the rest of the race recovering. At least this time it finished with a top ten.

Kyle Petty (11th)-His last three races (10th, 17th and 11th). PE is really making gains on both of their cars. That is nothing but good for the sport.

Jeff Green (13th)-Another solid run with new crew chief Harold Holly.

Martin Truex Jr (14th)-The worst luck of any rookie this year. He was closing in on a top 5 and then gets clipped by the crashing Scott Riggs. The last two races should be strengths for the 1 car.

Carl Edwards (15th)-It can’t be too surprising that he missed the Chase, but that he hasn’t won a race is really stunning.

Bobby Labonte (16th)-Labonte is currently 19th in points. That is the best position for a PE car since John Andretti finished 17th in 1999.

Reed Sorenson (17th)-He had a flat tire and spin early, but recovered nicely. Hard to imagine he will be the “senior” member of Ganassi’s Cup team.

Joe Nemechek (18th)-At the last three 1.5 mile tracks, Nemechek has finished 9th, 9th, and 18th. It’s too bad for Nemechek that progress will be for Mark Martin’s benefit in ’07.

Tony Raines (19th)-A solid finish at Hall of Fame Racing’s home track. Raines’ steady performance (24.7 avg finish) has allowed HoF to get established in Cup.

JJ Yeley (20th)-Not a great finish, but better than he ran most of the race. How can he struggle so much while his teammate absolutely dominated? Yes he’s a rookie, but he was a 30th place car.

David Gilliland (21st)-Things are beginningn to click for the 38. For the second straight race Gilliland ran in the top 20 most of the day, and got the finish he deserved.

Mike Bliss (23rd)-Bliss has run well the last two weeks. BAM racing has had a disastrous year, so 23rd probably feels pretty good.

David Stremme (24th)-Stremme finished better than Kasey Kahne, while staying out of each other’s way.

Ward Burton (25th)-He should change his name to the phonetic spelling: Woid or Wurd.

Jamie McMurray (26th)-Aside from staying out under yellow to lead 4 laps, he was a non-factor. That could be the name of his cologne: Non-Factor.

Brian Vickers (27th)-The pole sitter didn’t even lead any laps under green. Everytime he makes progress he slips back.

Travis Kvapil (28th)-Kvapil deserves a shot at a better ride. It’s too bad there aren’t many available at this point.

Dale Jarrett (29th)-Jarrett has run well during the Chase, but couldn’t follow up his 11th at Atlanta. He was a lap down most of the day.

Kenny Wallace (30th)-Qualifying for races is all Furniture Row can hope for at this point. Once in, Wallace does a nice job of staying out of trouble and turning laps.

Scott Riggs (31st)- His crash with four laps left got him airborne. It looked similar to Kahne’s crash at Indy and Martin’s at Lowes. Another disappointing finish for the 10 car.

Dave Blaney (32nd)-Blaney will run the full Busch schedule in ’07. That will be interesting to see how he does.

Ryan Newman (34th)-Newman ran in the 30’s the entire race, and was never in the top 15. Along with McMurray, Newman is the most shocking fall this year.

Greg Biffle (35th)-Ran well at times, struggled at others. Texas hasn’t been kind the last three races (tire, crash, tire/engine).

Terry Labonte (36th)-At least he had a cool paint job so he looked good when Stewart would lap him.

Elliot Sadler (37th)-All three Evernham cars qualified in the top 12, and all finished 31st or worse. Sadler faded from the green flag and was off track for quite a while, although NBC never said why.

Robby Gordon (38th)-Crashed, then his engine blew. He again had a fast car, but the early crash put him in a hole. Yates engines should help his team a lot in ‘07.

Sterling Marlin (40th)-A crash with Ken Schrader cost him his spot inside the top 25 safety net. With Kyle Petty running well, it will be a challenge.

Paul Menard (41st)-The second Menards sponsored car to lose his engine. He is preparing for ’07 and doing R&D for DEI, so the engine failure was probably due to experimenting.

Ken Schrader (42nd)-Got a flat and hit the wall, collecting Sterling Marlin. He’s 31st in the points, exactly where he finished in ’04 and ’05.

Michael Waltrip (43rd)-Waltip has 19 sub-30 finishes, including five of the last six races. He should change his number to 30.2 to match his average finish.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Terry Labonte's final run

Older Nascar fans can speak better than I about Terry Labonte’s great driver career. Looking at his numbers, he was certainly pretty great. He won at Nascar’s trickiest tracks like Darlington, Rockingham, Richmond and North Wilkesboro. He won at the Riverside road course, Pocono, Talladega, Charlotte and Phoenix. And of course at his home state track Texas Motorspeedway. He also won two Winston Cups in 1984 and 1996, two drastically different scenes in Nascar. He finished in the top ten in points 17 times in 29 years, including 10 of 11 years from 1979 through 1989.

I didn’t grow up as a Nascar fan that watched races regularly. I was a casual fan who vaguely remembers his ’96 Cup title. As a result, I missed most of Terry Labonte’s prime and can’t really speak to how great he was. However in the past few years, while his on track performance has slipped, his impact on the sport was considerable.

In a word Labonte’s efforts are summed up as selfless. Just look at three where three different teams are in 2006. After 2004 he graciously stepped aside to let Kyle Busch run in the #5 car full-time. The young Busch went on to win Rookie of the Year and make the '06 Chase.

In 2005 Joe Gibbs’ new third team was struggling to finish races and fell out of the top 35. Not only was Jason Leffler and the 11 team running poorly, they were involved in so many crashes, Gibbs was running out of cars. They needed to not only return to the top 35 in owners points, but also bring the car home safely. So Terry was hired to qualify the 11 car at the two road courses. He obliged, finishing 12th at Sonoma to equal the team’s best finish of the year to that point.

Then after Indy, Leffler was let go and Labonte was again asked to fill in. He did so for four more races, including a ninth at Richmond, the first top ten for the new team. He had also returned the team to the top 35 in owners points, affording Gibbs to let rookies JJ Yeley and Danny Hamlin finish the rest of the year. Ultimately Hamlin helped make the team into a Chase finalist. Things could have turned out differently without Labonte’s help. Just ask Robby Gordon or Michael Waltrip how quickly seasons can unravel without the top 35 safety net.

This year Labonte again helped a brand new team get started. Hall of Fame Racing asked Labonte to drive the first five races to ensure solid footing for their debut season. Labonte also drove the two road courses including a 3rd at Sonoma after leading late. Obviously his Champion’s provisional had much to do with Labonte’s hiring. At the same time, Labonte did his part, finishing races and keeping the car in one piece.

And now this Sunday Labonte will run his final Nascar Cup race at Texas. With a part-time team, he has virtually no shot of winning. Still, it would be nice to see him run well and have a nice finish. How about staying out on the first caution and lead a lap or two? He deserves to be recognized, not only for his great driving career, but also his humble, selfless style.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wither Robby Gordon

Robby Gordon has a gray cloud that seems to follow him around. When everyone else sees sunlight, Gordon gets rain dumped on his head. In two races this spring, Atlanta and Texas, he had a fast car capable of strong finishes. He got caught pitting just prior to a caution both times costing him top tens. Then at Darlington he stayed out too long, perhaps wary of incurring another ill-timed yellow flag, and lost too much track position on old tires. Once again, he lost a chance at a top ten finish. So in his latest effort to grab a top ten at an intermediate track, can you really blame him for ensuring that he does everything he can to finish where he deserves? Drivers punt others at short tracks all the time, especially when the leader is coming. Which action is more dangerous?

It is hard enough for a single-car operation to compete, but having bad luck makes it worse. I don't have a strong opinion towards Gordon either way. Plenty of people seem to want to use any chance to tear him down. Is he any more aggressive than Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards? Any more outspoken than Greg Biffle or Kyle Busch? Somehow in a lot of fan's eyes he is some supervillain that can't drive.

So now he is fined for intentionally causing a caution with roll cage padding at Atlanta. No problem with punishing him. There are enough cautions per race, and Nascar had to ensure it didn't start a trend. Still, there are few head-scratching thoughts that rise from this:

-In 2004 at the spring Bristol race, Dale Jr intentionally caused a caution by spinning. Sure no one was around and it was certainly entertaining when he bragged about it on his radio. But again, tell me which is more dangerous of the two? One driver was docked 50 points, the other only 25.

-Gordon was placed on probation until December 31st. What's the point of this? The season is done in three weeks. If Gordon gets rowdy at Thanksgiving and throws his helmet at dinner, does he face additional sanctions? What if he opens Christmas presents and intentionally leaves the wrapping paper on the ground? What say you Nascar? Of course that is the vague umbrella rule known as section 12.4.a.

-Gordon should repeat what he did with his driving helmet after Loudon last year. Auction off some roll-cage padding for charity. What fan wouldn't bid on a piece of greased, ratty foam, that may or may not have flown from the #7 car?