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Friday, March 30, 2007

Martinsville Preview and Predictions

Martinsville is one of the most exciting tracks on the Cup circuit. It’s short, and tight, and there are zero aerodynamics involved. The turns are concrete with asphalt straightaways. It’s a half mile track so drivers are always battling traffic. Brakes fail, cars get hot and tires get cuts and flats. Two of the more impressive drives of recent time have come in the last two spring races. In 2005 Jeff Gordon lost three laps early on die to an unscheduled pit stop. He earned two laps back by passing the leader and then got a lucky dog near the end of the race. With several of the best cars having problems, Gordon took advantage and worked his way to the front for the win. The impressive win was not without controversy. On his late march to the front, he made contact with Kurt Busch spinning him into the fence.

In 2006 cars got bunched up on lap one, resulting in a large accordion-like wreck. Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car suffered severe damage with the right front fender torn off. As he limped back to the pits, hoses snaked out of the hole, giving the appearance of a car that would spend the rest of the day merely turning laps. The team pitted several times under the caution, but managed to stay on the lead lap. The cars’ entire right front tire was exposed, but Earnhardt Jr. continued on. As the race progressed,the 8 car kept climbing the leader board, getting as high as 5th. A second incident with Ryan Newman sent Earnhardt Jr. back to the pits for repairs. Despite two major incidents during the race, Junior still was one of the fastest cars at the end of the race, finishing 4th.

Neither of these finishes could happen at most tracks. The speeds are too fast and it’s too hard to overcome three laps or major body damage. Some might complain that Martinsville is too slow or it’s too hard to pass. What is wrong with a track being tough to pass on? It is much different than an intermediate track that is hard to pass on because of the aero-sensitivity. It’s simply a small track with one groove. It actually puts more responsibility in the drivers’ hands and that’s where everyone wants it anyway. If it was too easy to pass, every race would be like Michigan.

-Fox is televising the Craftsman Truck Series event at Martinsville on Saturday. It is the first CTS race on network television since 2000. For many fans without the Speed Channel (including myself) it is a look at the most consistently competitive series in NASCAR. With many sponsors and manufacturers withdrawing support, it’s a needed boost of exposure for the series too. It’s also a good thing the race will finish before the Final Four games tip off.

-The only Martin to win at Martinsville is Mark (’92, ’00). He is not entered this weekend so it is up to Martin Truex Jr. to try and carry on the Martin’s Ville mantel. That is unless Matt Martin shows up or maybe Marty Snider takes a hot lap.

-Richard Petty has won the most grandfather clocks with 15. Darrell Waltrip has 11 wins. The only active driver with more than two is Jeff Gordon (7).

-Hendrick Motorsports has won six of the last eight races at Martinsville. They have also won the last three weeks in the Nextel Cup in 2007.

-This week is the CoT is again the focus. Expect the usual teams and drivers to be at the front: Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson. My pick this week is Stewart. In the last four races he has led 818 laps at Martinsville. He has three straight top fives including a win last spring. Watch out for Jamie McMurray as a dark horse. He ran well last week at Bristol and has 5 career top tens in 8 races at Martinsville.

-My other predictions are Ohio State and UCLA to meet Monday night. Watch out for Billy Packer,Billy Packer Man-Crush Award include Joakim Noah, Sean May, Chris Duhon and of course, the all-time great Mateen Cleaves. Who will it take the Man-Crush Award this year? My guess is Ohio State point guard Mike Conley Jr.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Top Reasons why Greg Biffle was not fined for his low car at Bristol:

10. The Ladder of Tomorrow was an unapproved modification, so the 16 team lowered the car.

9. Mike Helton was promised a spot on Boston’s opening day roster.

8. Nicole Lunders threatened Brian France with an Aquafina bottle unless he waved the penalty.

7. No jetfuel, no foul.

6. Mark Martin was a week early with an April Fools gag.

5. Biffle brought party Subs to the NASCAR hauler and also offered free tax service from Jackson Hewitt.

4. Jim Hunter didn’t think anyone in Nextel Cup would cheat on purpose.

3. Instead of a points or monetary penalty, Biffle will now have to drive the Car of Tomorrow at Texas.

2. Somehow it was Hendrick Motorsports’ fault.

1. The Fusion low-rider was Ford’s answer to the Chevy Impala commercials with Dale Jr and rapper T.I. Holla!

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

3 Drivers that liked Bristol more than hated it...

A lot of drivers suffered poor finishes at Bristol. Crashes, flat tires, pit road problems and parts failures contributed to only 15 cars on the lead lap. For a few drivers, Bristol was a dose of medicine that hopefully helps redirect their seasons.

Jeff Green-Green finished 2006 on an upswing. He scored his only two top tens of the year during the Chase. His old, new crew chief Harold Holly helped Green to run more competitively as the season closed. It was a sign of hope for He ran well at Daytona before catching Jimmie Johnson’s spinning car, leaving him 36th. His first four races produced finishes of 36th, 30th, 25th, and 35th. The poor start pushed Green to the brink of guaranteed status. A sixth place finish at Bristol moved him to 28th place. At worst this buys more time in the starting field. Green will obviously hope it is the start of something larger. Teammate Johnny Sauter is also inside the top 35, making for a successful expansion for the company. Haas CNC Racing can use some good news. Owner Gene Haas is battling fraud charges (and people call Teresa Earnhardt a deadbeat owner), and the team hasn’t been competitive at the Cup level in years. Now Green heads to Martinsville where he finished 8th last fall.

Casey Mears-If you needed another example of how difficult it is to jump into a new ride and find immediate success, check out Mears. Just like his former teammate Jamie McMurray he left Ganassi to join a seemingly better situation. So far the results have been middling. Darian Grubb is a brand new crew chief and it will take time for the #25 car to find consistency. There is some hope, however. Mears scored his first top ten at Bristol and Brian Vickers had excellent cars at Texas and Talladega, two races on the horizon.

Brian Vickers-After he crashed last week at Atlanta, Vickers made his third race of the season. Cameras barely captured his car during the race, but he did finish a strong 15th. Consider he also suffered burns on his feet and rear, not to mention carbon monoxide inhalation. Despite missing two races, Vickers is still the strongest Toyota driver. He had a top ten at California, led the first Camry laps at Atlanta and now sits 38th in points. Doug Richert is one of the top crew chiefs in Cup and the two should only improve their communication and chemistry as the season progresses. Toyota is also working very hard to improve their cars which should grant Vickers more consistency.

-Looking at the Martinsville entry lists, it’s surprising more Cup drivers did not enter the Truck race. Kevin Harvick, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Mike Bliss and Ken Schrader are the only drivers entering both events. The trucks have many characteristics in common with the Car of Tomorrow. Obviously young drivers like Allmendinger and Menard need experience at Martinsville, not to mention the new car. With so many teams trying to get a handle on the new car, why not take the opportunity to see what translates from trucks to the CoT?

-The Chase is months away. The most interesting battle right now is the top 35 battle. 100 points separate 35th from 43rd. Every full-time team has now made at least one race. Even more tenuous are the seven teams barely on the good side of 35. 29th place Reed Sorenson is only 74 points ahead of 36th place. At a place like crash-happy Martinsville, that is a very slim margin.

-Tony Stewart has led 441 laps in five races. Dale Earnhardt Jr was 10th in 2006 in laps led with 444.

-Thank you to reader Jim for keeping me and my lousy Final Four picks accountable. I lost Maryland in the second round, but still felt good about my other three picks. Then Ohio State came back from 19 down against Tennessee, Kansas could not figure out UCLA’s defense and North Carolina suddenly forgot how to score. For the second year in a row, I’m left with zero Final Four teams. At least the games should be interesting this Saturday. Just don’t ask me who will win.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

View from the Couch: Bristol

The two most common phrases on Sunday: Unscheduled pit stop, and Trouble in Turn 2! I appreciate Mike Joy and Bristol doing so much to promote my little blog. Turn 2 was where all the action was on Sunday. The race had plenty of stories happening. The world didn't end with the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, Joe Gibbs Racing lead all of the laps that didn't matter and there was a close, exciting finish. Compared to most Bristol races, there were very few racing incidents. It was a day of battling one's car and the track more than other drivers. I also appreciate Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton and making my Friday picks look smart. Quite the finish.

Car of Tomorrow Notes
-Maybe Busch's quote from Victory Lane summed it all up, “I can't stand to drive these things, they suck.” And this is from a driver that won the race while spending the majority of the day in the top five. Drivers will get more comfortable with the car with time. This will be especially true at smoother tracks than Bristol. Maybe the best name for the CoT is WhIP (Work in Progress). Drivers must relearn how to control the car and crews must figure out which adjustments will work. Fans will also get used to the awkward look of the car.

-When Dale Jarrett hit the wall it looked like his trunk exploded. Other cars had pretty significant damage for pretty innocuous crashes at Bristol. The CoT will run at Darlington. Practically every driver this the wall there, what will happen to the bodies of the new cars?

-There were so many cars that had problems it was hard to tell which teams truly struggled with the car. It was surprising that Jimmie Johnson's 48 team did not run better.

-Smaller teams seemed to be more competitive: Mike Bliss, Jeff Green, Kenny Wallace Ward Burton. This probably has a lot to do with experience on short tracks. If these drivers on small teams continue to do well at other tracks on the schedule, it will be a victory for the CoT.

-The bad news for Gibbs Racing: All three cars had mechanical problems and their best finish was 14th. The good news: They led 88 percent of the laps, and the same car is back next week.

Other Views from the Couch
-Once again, Evernham was up and down: The day started great with all three qualifying and running in the top ten. Then all three cars had different problems, and none finished on the lead lap. Scott Riggs is currently outside the top 35 (right where he was last year at this time), and Kasey Kahne is barely on the right side in 34th. Elliott Sadler is in 13th, but has only one top ten so far.

-This year's Brent Sherman wild ride award winner is David Ragan. He spun three times before finally wrecking. After a solid start to the season (5th, 16th in two races) Ragan has had three tough races. Martinsville could be another long day for him. The good news is that he is solidly inside the top 35.

-Fox featured lots of in-car shots and really did a great job capturing the action from track level. It was great work to see how bumpy the track truly is. I hope this is a trend and not a novelty because of the CoT.

-Jeff Green has had some decent runs this year, but not the results. He finally finished well on Sunday, taking sixth. Without the solid run, he was in danger of falling outside the top 35.

-Mike Joy often mentions that none of the fans are leaving the end of this race. Why would they? This isn't an NBA game.

-Jeff Burton=class. What more can you say?

-Kyle Busch makes the occasional stupid mistake, but in between he is pretty likable. He is honest, is extremely talented, and does his best to respect other drivers like Burton. The new goatee also makes him look older than 18.

-The top 35 now reflects this season's standings. Joe Nemechek and Johnny Sauter crack the top 35 despite missing Bristol. Sterling Marlin also regains a guaranteed starting position for the #14 car. Dave Blaney, Scott Riggs and Ken Schrader (with Jon Wood) all fall outside the top 35. Riggs has qualified well all season, but Blaney and Schrader face a challenge in the coming weeks. Dale Jarrett was in the top 35 for the first four weeks, but his crash placed him outside the safety bubble. The mildly good news is that Jarrett made the race on time, thus saving one of his two remaining provisionals.

My Torqued off Tuesday Bug:
-Why did NASCAR wait so long to throw the caution when Jimmie Johnson cut a tire? He was crawling back to his pits and everyone around him was slowing to avoid him. In turn, this allowed Kyle Busch to pass the boxed in Denny Hamlin. This could have not only greatly affected the race, but causes a huge pileup. If Brian France and NASCAR are truly serious about integrity with their cautions and safety is a priority, someone had better send some caffeine to the control tower to keep everyone awake.

-I spent all of Monday in a seminar on negotiating. One of the first things the instructor says is, “I won't try to be a Bo Derek.” The obvious implication that he won't try to be a perfect 10 instructor for us. “I'm more of a six.” In reality I could have learned more from a book on my own time. Companies like mine spend lots of money for these kind of seminars. It's a little sorry when an instructor basically says he isn't aiming to be the best teacher, but only mediocre.

[Note: I did work on my new site, but there were some complications that delayed its launch.]

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Francespeak and a few Bristol Thoughts

A few quick thoughts before the weekend. Brian France was interviewed on Sirius this past week. The transcript is from Dustin Long’s blog. Most of his answers were very company line, vanilla stuff. He did have a few quotes that stood out to me:

On the AT&T lawsuit: “…it is kind of flattering that somebody is suing us to stay in the sport. You don’t want a lawsuit from anybody but if you have to I guess that would be one thing to think about.”
I’m sure that was AT&T’s intent. That is also why Kentucky Speedway and Texas Motorspeedway previously filed suits. It’s all about flattery.

On debris cautions: “If we think something is potentially an obstacle or a problem on the track we’re going to put the caution out every single time. We’ll be very consistent about that.”
Obviously a 10 car pileup on the last lap at Daytona does not qualify as debris. Maybe someone can keep track of proposed consistency this year.

On the Busch Series: “We’ve got a lot of potential with that series that I think we’re not really reaching even though, as we debate this internally all the time somebody’s quick to tell me it’s the #2 motorsport in the country. So when you start going ‘Let’s change this’ or ‘Let’s adjust that’ you’ve got to be a little careful because it is doing so well.”

On paper #2 sounds great. Of course that is comparing the Busch Series to the struggling IRL, and the withering series that is ChampCar. That’s kind of like saying Arena Football is the #2 professional football league in the country. It sounds great, but that doesn’t address the true problems in the series. Independent Busch teams are getting choked out, races often struggle to fill full fields, and maybe most importantly young drivers no longer have good opportunities to gain experience. But if Brian France says things are good, then everyone else must be wrong.

-Qualifying is once again the story of the day. A quick math equation: 50 cars-35 guarenteed-1 Champion provisional-6 fastest qualifying times=7 unhappy drivers and sponsors.

The scramble to make the top 35 is in high gear for drivers like Jeff Green, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Scott Riggs, Dave Blaney and David Reutimann. Others (Mayfield, Waltrip, Allmendinger, Vickers, Ward Burton, Kenny Wallace, Mike Bliss) are merely hoping to gain exposure for their sponsors.

-Based on speeds from practice and last month’s test, Denny Hamlin looks the favorite on Sunday. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick are also very consistent at Bristol. Watch out for Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch too. Both have run very well this year in every race. Busch has had fast cars but some bad luck in nearly every race. One thing is certain; there won’t be any snow this weekend, which hopefully means Kurt Busch will not attempt a snow angel.

-On the NASCAR blog scene, the cool thing to do is change your layout. Since I want to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids, I am also working on updating the look and location of my blog. I have planned on this for months, but I’m not always the most diligent. I hope to finish this weekend, but realistically it probably won’t happen for a little while. I’m still excited about the changes because I’m trying to personally handle as much of the design as I can. I’m in the process of learning web design, combined with dusting off my Photoshop skills. We’ll see what happens.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bristol Questions

What happens to the CoT in a crash?
If the February practice was any indicator, the slightest crashes will render the car wrecked. Just because you see a spike in sheet metal sales on eBay Monday morning does not mean that Sunday's race was wild and exciting. The other troubling thing is teams will race the same cars next week at Martinsville. Some of the smaller teams might not have a large fleet of cars built yet. What happens if one or more cars get wrecked within the same company? Crew chiefs have complained about how long it takes to repair the bodies of the cars. Say a smaller team like Hall of Fame Racing or Petty Enterprises dings multiple cars this weekend. It could be tough to

Will anyone be able to pass or just one long line?
Last August's race was with a car that everyone had essentially figured out and that was a parade. Granted that was more about self-preservation before the Chase, but it still stands. It will probably be worse this year. If the cars are too fragile to handle the normal bumping at Bristol, passing becomes even harder without the chrome horn. A handful of cars will find something that works and leave everyone else in the dust. With that said, don’t use
Bristol as an indicator of whether the CofT is a success or not.

Will everyone make it through inspection?
A brand new car with constantly evolving specs. A new “claw” that will test all the templates at once. Every part marked with an RFID. With so many new changes and my cynical nature, I’d say the chances are pretty good it’s going to be chaotic on Friday.

Who will be caught with their pants down?
Someone will. Everyone knew this date was coming. Some teams embraced the opportunities to test and others resisted. Given their track record on past rule changes, DEI is a likely suspect to really struggle. Ganassi also fits the profile, regardless of their recent gains on the speedway car. Evernham also tends to lag behind other teams; although once they do catch up they are a force. Ford is also handling the CoT for Roush, Yates and Wood Brothers. These teams tested less than some of the other top teams. This poses the obvious risk of falling behind the competition.

On the other hand, remember that Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne’s respective crew chiefs Robbie Reiser and Kenny Francis were suspended for the first four races. That means a lot of time in the shop to work on the Car of Tomorrow.

Can Toyota close the gap?
The last three weeks at speedway tracks
Toyota has struggled. It is not surprising considering they are competing against established teams that have spent years perfecting the current speedway car. With the new model, everyone started closer to the same point. The established teams still have more resources, historical notes and talent, but at least Toyota doesn’t have as large of a gap to close with the Car of Tomorrow.

Other Notes:
The Cal Ripkens of NASCAR are dropping quickly. Ricky Rudd held the longest streak of consecutive starts until he took all of 2006 off. Michael Waltrip had the longest active streak, spanning back to 1987 until he missed three races last year. Now the current leader is Mark Martin and his 621 race streak comes to an end this Sunday. After Sunday who are the next two drivers with the longest active streaks of 477 and 476 respectively? Answer below.

The Car of Tomorrow has plenty of nicknames: Co'T, Brick, Car of Yesterday Today, Butt Ugly, Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Grandma’s Car, Plow of Tomorrow. What are we supposed to call the current model? Surely there is a better name than Car of Right Now or CORN. A few suggestions: Speedway car. The anti-brick, The less-safe racecar, The one with a spoiler, The Hammock (a perfect foil for the COT), Old Reliable. Any suggestions?

Trivia Answer A. Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

NASCAR:The Official Hypocrite of NASCAR

NASCAR, not to mention the entire motorsports industry, runs on sponsors. Without the support of hundreds of companies teams could not run, and NASCAR would have no way to put on races and have the large purses that attract the top drivers in the US.

NASCAR has created a problem by awarding official sponsorships for seemingly any product. What is worse is the preferential treatment of certain sponsors by NASCAR.

Companies fork over more money to become the official ___ of NASCAR. The limits on what a company can officially sponsor are practically endless. Combos is the official Cheese-Filled food for crying out loud.

In some cases, NASCAR is willing to take on everyone who is interested. For example, there is not an official beverage of NASCAR. Instead there is an official beer (Budweiser), soft drink (Coca-Cola), sports drink (Powerade), juice (Minute Maid), wine (Diageo) and water (Dasani). If that isn't complicated enough, consider Calloway is the official golf ball while Top-Flite is the official golf club. NASCAR has an official manufacturer (Toyota), pace car (Chevy Monte Carlo), truck (Ford) and passenger vehicle (Dodge Charger). That obviously covers every manufacturer competing in NASCAR. These are all cases of NASCAR accommodating several sponsors and that is the way it should be.

With the latest sponsor conflicts however, either NASCAR is not interested in accommodation or NEXTEL and Sunoco have too much control over operations. With Nextel as the title sponsor, Cingular and Alltel were granted grandfather exceptions because they were in the sport prior to Nextel's involvement. Now Cingular is getting re-branded as AT&T, but NASCAR and Nextel is crying foul. Although it is the same company as Cingular, Richard Childress Racing can not show the AT&T logos on Jeff Burton’s #31 car. AT&T has filed a lawsuit. Robby Gordon was also initially denied use of the Motorola logos on his car. The ironic part is that Nextel is merging with Sprint, and the series will change to the NASCAR Sprint Cup as soon as 2008.

What is more, another RCR car, Kevin Harvick’s #29 was earlier asked to not feature the Shell logo as prominently on his car or firesuit due to the competition with Sunoco, the official fuel of NASCAR. Harvick’s car now features a smaller Shell logo plus the Pennzoil logo. Sunoco does not even have stations in some parts of the country.

It is not the first time a sponsor conflict has grabbed headlines. In 2004, as the official sports drink of NASCAR, Powerade paid for exposure in Victory Lane. Do not confuse this with the sponsor of Victory Lane itself: Gatorade. Powerade is made and distributed by Coke. The biggest feature was placing a large Powerade bottle on the roof of the winning car in Victory Lane. Drivers who were sponsored by Pepsi, like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, would deliberately knock the bottle of the car during their celebrations. NASCAR representatives (the official officials of NASCAR?) eventually told drivers they couldn’t knock the poor Powerade bottle off the cars. When Johnson placed a Lowe’s sign in front of the bottle he was fined $10,000 for the nebulous and infamous section 12-4-A “actions detrimental to stock car racing”. That fine was rather benign compared to what it could mean for Childress or Robby Gordon. Without a multi-million dollar sponsor on the car it is difficult to pay the expenses involved with racing.

Official sponsorships should not grant exclusivity. One of the results of a free market is competition. It is usually a good thing. Home Depot and Lowe's both spend lots of money in NASCAR to gain exposure for their companies. All four car manufacturers coexist.

Things might be different is this was a sport with franchises like the NFL. NASCAR teams are independent of the governing body. They have to pay the expenses to compete and enter races. To use the analogy of a party, NASCAR is basically sending out invitations to teams and requiring that they bring a date (sponsor money). Then when the teams and their dates get to the door, NASCAR is refusing certain dates for not being on the list.

NASCAR should not be able to dictate how or where that money comes from. If a creative “official sponsor” title can not be found, NASCAR must at least allow teams to bring their own sponsors to the party no matter who it is.

My Tuesday bug (a day late):

Local news stations. Instead of teasing a story for half an hour, how about getting to the point and covering more stories. Teases must work at some level, but I can’t be the only one that just wants a straight story. Last night one local Portland channel ran a tease asking whether it would freeze overnight or not. They promoted this story three times and finally answered their own question at the end of the broadcast. Having young plants I really wanted to know whether I should cover them from the pending frost or go to bed knowing that the frost would not come. In the time it takes to ask the question, the weather man could have simply told me “yes” or “no”. Then they could move on to another story that is worth my time. They used the same tactic for a story about a lady that found a large nail in a chew toy for her dog. Instead of telling us where this happened, they wasted time with teases promising to tell us what store the nail was found at. I understand they are trying to get people to watch their channel instead of the competition. What would really keep my interest is information instead of gloss and fluff. I am confident I’m not alone. Let me know what's bugging you this week.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

View from the Couch: Atlanta

Atlanta was just what NASCAR needed: An exciting race with few cautions and even less controversy. After the cheating at Daytona, lots of cautions (including disputed debris) at California, the tire complaints and wrecks at Las Vegas an uneventful weekend suited all parties well. A tight finish made things even better. Unfortunately, the racing will take a weekend or two off while the focus returns to the Car of Tomorrow. Expect widespread panic this week as several teams complain about the new car, while the few teams that did their winter homework laugh all the way to Victory Lane.

I had to tape the race and watched it last night. As a result I was more concerned with finishing the race than analyzing the various coverage elements. Many will say that’s a good thing. The one thing that stuck out to me was green flag runs give the Fox crew less time to goof around. That means they are talking about racing instead of showing needless fluff or allowing DW to go off on tangents. I though the coverage was pretty good on Sunday.

A few thoughts:
Ignore DW because Mark Martin will not make the Chase. He plans to miss the next two races and will certainly skip more during the summer. Say he misses two races that he normally scores top 20’s. Considering how he has run so far this year, that’s a safe estimate. That’s at least 206 points Martin leaves on the table. It would be tough to make that difference up. That’s also not accounting for any bad runs Martin has. Martin doesn’t seem to care, so why does everyone else want to make a big deal out of it?

-Props to Mike Bliss and BAM racing. They failed to qualify in the first three races, but Bliss was 9th fastest at Atlanta and finished 21st.

-Juan Pablo Montoya had a great run at Atlanta. Ganassi’s equipment is really improved and Montoya is learning quickly. After his first Cup top 5 his reward is 1000 laps of short track racing over the next two weeks. People can complain about Montoya saturation, but he is pretty exciting to watch. One of the most impressive things about Montoya’s run was the tire management. Teams were reporting minor tire issues and other cars struggled on long runs. Montoya drove aggressively but consistently. Consider that in Formula 1, the cars run one set of tires for two entire races.

-Setting aside the engine woes at California, DEI might have graduated from being an overgrown one-car team. There are early signs that they finally have two teams that can run well every week. Martin Truex Jr scored a top ten Sunday and ran well at Daytona and Las Vegas too. Dale Earnhardt Jr has spent the majority of the last two weeks in the top five, but hasn’t finished well. The finishes will come at the speedways. It’s a significant improvement over previous years where Earnhardt Jr was the only car capable of running up front every week. Now we’ll see if DEI paid attention to the Car of Tomorrow.

Who Would Have Predicted…
…That Evernham cars would have two top ten’s and none on the intermediate tracks where they usually run so well.

…That David Ragan would have more top fives (1) than Greg Biffle (0).

…The most consistent Dodge to date would be David Stremme.

…That Toyota would have this much trouble. Only one car (#44 Dale Jarrett) currently sits inside the top 35. David Reutimann can’t seem to avoid trouble. He now has 3 crashes in 3 races and sits 43rd in points.

…That James Hylton would have as many points as Jeremy Mayfield and AJ Allmendinger and more than Michael Waltrip.

…That after four races, there is no sign of a feud between any two drivers. That should change next weekend in a small Tennessee town called Bristol.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

March Madness Quick Preview

There are very few times on my blog when NASCAR takes a backseat. The opening day of March Madness is one of the times. There are so many great memories and characters that surface during the tournament, especially the first weekend. The upsets, individual performances, and buzzer beaters. Too many to name in fact. Here’s my breakdown of this year’s tourney. This breakdown is probably worth less than the price of this blog, but I still find pleasure in it. For full disclosure, my Final Four picks from last year were UConn, Kansas (1st round loss), Gonzaga and Villanova. That’s right 0-4. Read on at your own risk.

Final Four Teams:
Kansas-The Jayhawks have a lot of talent and play an uptempo game that can wear thinner teams down. Julian Wright is the underrated glue man that could have a great tourney. Aside from a potential game with UCLA, their path is rather unobstructed. My pick to cut down the nets.

Maryland-A team loaded with seniors led by guards DJ Strawberry and Mike Jones. They also have enough inside size to deal with Florida in the Sweet 16. Center James Gist is the key to a deep run.

North Carolina-Traditionally freshman guards do not do well in the tourney. That’s overstated a bit, especially when the guards are as talented as Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. They are deep, big and will wear teams down.

Tennesee-Looking at the South bracket, there wasn’t a team I was in love with and have a feeling this is where the upsets will come (see below). Tennesee has an experienced scorer in Chris Lofton and this bracket could open up for the Vols. Plus there’s something strangely mystical about Bruce Pearl and his sweaty orange blazers.

Who will be this year’s George Mason?
Nobody. That was such a unbelievable run that it might never happen again. As usual, there are plenty of Cinderella candidates to pull an upset or two. Watch out for Oral Roberts, Winthrop, or Old Dominion.

Biggest upset:
Xavier over Ohio State. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta recruited many of the Musketeers and several players were on the 2004 team that made the Elite Eight. The Buckeyes have ridiculous talent, but they are young and the Big Ten is not as good it seems.

Wisconsin-Center Brian Butch is out for the year. Without him the Badgers lack the inside scorer to take the heat off Alondo Tucker.

Memphis-Yes, they’re 30-3. No, they haven’t played anyone. Nevada or Creighton could easily beat them in the second round.

Georgia Tech-The 10 seed is very young, but very good. They could easily make some noise and scare some teams.

Enjoy the games!

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Random Thoughts for a Slow Day

I woke up with writer’s block this morning, so I thought I would have others largely write my blog for me today.

  • George Gillett might invest in Evernham Motorsports. Gillett already owns the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and English soccer giant Liverpool among other investments. If two of the top teams in Nextel Cup feel the need to seek out additional capital, how are the lower tier teams ever going to make it?

  • Larry McReynolds explains why Jimmie Johnson’s team did not break any rules on their final pit stop:

    A tire can be in the next pit box. Draw an imaginary line down the center of the pit boxes. Your equipment, including tires, cannot be on the track side of the line, and the No. 48 car's was not on that side of the line.

    It's not a NASCAR official's job, but it's not uncommon. Think about it from a safety standpoint. A tire rolling out on pit road can get hit by a car and hit a crew member.
    At most races, I can look at all of pit road in one glance. You would be shocked at how many NASCAR officials catch tires rolling away from every race team. Officials won't catch tires stop after stop. If it continued to happen, the official would go to the crew chief and say, "Look, I'm not catching your tires anymore." But once or twice during a race, I see officials catch tires for all race teams up and down pit road.

    I can live with that. I noticed the tire roll past his pit box, but not into the road. Sure some might look at the official stopping the tire as some kind of advantage for the 48 team. In the bigger picture the officials are there to make sure everything is safe. That’s why they penalize for speeding, loose lugnuts and straying equipment. Look at it this way. If the official lets the tire go it ensures Johnson’s team is penalized, but it also allows a 70 pound tire the chance to hit another car or crew member.

  • One of the best mainstream media blogs is Virginia-Pilot beat writer Dustin Long. A beat writer that understands how to use a blog is great. He gives additional notes, quotes and insight that can’t fit in his regular articles. He also updates frequently from places like the CoT test at Bristol, well before other outlets had any information. He is one of those writers that are always overflowing with information.From Dustin Long’s blog:
    Also, James Finch is listed as the car owner for the No. 4 Morgan-McClure car of Ward Burton. The team bought the points from Finch, whose 09 car of Mike Wallace scored 160 points with his fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500. This became effecitve this week as the team tries to climb into the top 35 in car owner points by Bristol so they can have a guaranteed starting spot. The team is 38th in car owner points after Sunday's race.

    It’s an interesting note that puts Ward right back in the thick of things. If he can make the next two races, and avoid Robby Gordon’s carnage, Burton could see himself inside the top 35. It’s still a steep challenge, but 38th is much better than 48th in owner’s points. It’s an interesting note that I have not seen covered anywhere else. Without the extra points, Burton and the #4 car’s outlook is pretty bleak.

  • Thank you to reader John for showing me the way on my Cousin Carl bug. “His dad is Ken Schrader's cousin. So Kenny started referring to him as Cousin Carl and it just stuck.” So it does make sense after all. It still bugs me, but at least it there’s a story behind it.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Numbers, stats and Torqued Off Tuesday

A few notes about driver ratings:
-Jeff Burton leads all drivers with a 116.9 average driver rating through three races. If not for a late mechanical problem, he would also have three top ten finishes and probably the points lead. Burton is proving that last year was not a fluke. Maybe he simply slumped in 2004-2005.

-Not only has Mark Martin scored three straight top five finishes, but his driver rating was above 100 in all three races. For the next two weeks you will hear nothing from me about "will he or won't he?". I think the rest of the NASCAR galaxy is covering this enough.

-Judging by their driver ratings, David Ragan and Robby Gordon have overachieved so far. Gordon’s average rating is 64.2 with an average finish of 17.7. Ragan’s average rating is 49.0, but his average finish is 19.3. Gordon's popularity rating is also rather low after his poor judgement led to wrecking Casey Mears at Las Vegas.

-Of drivers making three races, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty have miserable ratings of 29.0 and 30.7 respectively. Not coincidentally both drivers are toeing the top 35 line. At least Petty has had recent success at Atlanta (8th, 17th in 2006).

Top 35 Update:
The water got murkier after Las Vegas for the drivers trying to crack the top 35. Joe Nemechek and Johnny Sauter suffered early crashes. Paul Menard got trapped two laps down because of a speeding penalty, and Sterling Marlin lost an engine late. At least they made the race. David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, Jeremy Mayfield and AJ Allmendinger lost further ground to the pack. If 2007 owners points kicked in today, Nemechek, Sauter, Marlin and Jarrett would be in. Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs, Dave Blaney and the 21 car (Ken Schrader/Jon Wood) would have to make the race on time.

And then there is Michael Waltrip. He is now averaging -9 points per week. Last year was a disaster, but at least he was able to make the majority of races and had to buy his way into the Coca Cola 600 to appease his sponsor NAPA. It turns out that was nothing compared to 2007. In three Cup races, Waltrip has a -100 point penalty and missed two other races.

Fact of the Week
Last year after three races, there were 12 drivers that had completed 100% of the laps. This year only five drivers have completed 100% of the laps through three races. Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

My Three Bugs for the Week:
-It seems like every race during the final green flag run, the announcers will say, “The leaders just ran their fastest laps of the day.” This shouldn't be a surprise, yet Larry McReynold's voice rises when he says this. They spend the first 300+ miles fine-tuning their cars, then get fresh tires. Not to mention the fact that it's, well, the end of the race. So to reduce to the simplest terms, the best cars, tweaked towards perfection, are at the front of the pack as the race winds down, increasing the intensity and need to go faster. I don't know if it could get more basic.

-Why Cousin Carl? It doesn't make sense for a nickname. Flipper has meaning. Tony Stewart dubbing Edwards Eddie Haskell works. Aside from the obvious alliteration, Cousin Carl holds zero logic. What is next, Brother Boris? Nephew Nemechek?

-The unofficial office cheerleader. Nearly every office has one. It's the person that organizes the potluck for lunch, decorates other people's desks for birthdays, and asks people to chip in for the Powerball drawing. These things are fine by themselves. Plenty of people enjoy the diversions and they can boost office morale. I also can't take issue with the fact they aren't work related, since 90% of this blog is written during work hours. I may have diversions at work, but when things need to get done I do them right away. The problem is that in my experience, the cheerleader is the first employee to complain about being too busy. Said person might have more time if they weren't always willing to pick up Starbucks for everyone or playing Secret Santa.

What’s bugging you today or this week? Let me know.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Things I don’t want to hear this weekend:

-“Who will have their luck run out? And who will shoot craps?”-Thanks Chris Myers.

-“Another right front tire problem.”-I really hope Goodyear and NASCAR get it right this weekend.

-“Trouble again for the 8 car”-Love him or hate him, it’s good for NASCAR when Junior runs well. Plus, I happen to like him.

-“Ooh, Deuces wild!”- as Kurt Busch takes the lead. Thanks DW.

-“You know, here in Vegas you want to hit 21, but it looks like 20 is a pretty good number too.”-Larry McReynolds as Tony Stewart opens an 8 second lead.

-“Trouble in Turn 2”-With increased speeds comes increased danger and decreased control. Nobody wants to see another scary crash like David Reutimann’s at California.

-“Who will gamble on fuel here in Sin City?”-Thanks Mike Joy.

-“Caution for debris, that means we’ll have a green, white, checker finish.”-Oh great, phantom caution and a contrived green, white, checker.

-“Honey, can are you going to clean the basement today?”-“Sorry dear, there’s a green white checker!”

Other Thoughts

-Is it me or has this been a really quiet two weeks in the NASCAR world? There is nothing noteworthy happening. It’s been three weeks since Daytona, you would think Silly Season rumors should have surfaced by now. Something about how Jeffrey Earnhardt is going to replace Dale Jr in the 8 car. Or maybe Regan Smith announcing his retirement from Cup racing.

-This weekend is Daylight Savings Time. Don’t forget. It would be a shame to miss an hour of the race by forgetting to spring ahead.

-My prediction for a youngster to win at California was not very accurate. Clint Bowyer ran well, but never threatened. This week is a brand new surface at Las Vegas so I think someone with great car control and probably a veteran will win. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth each have two wins here and either would make sense. I'm going with Jeff Gordon. He ran well at California, and traditionally runs very well higher banked tracks and he won at Chicago last year. Chicago has 18 degrees compared to the new Vegas' 20 degrees.

-Last Thursday marked the annual start of Mustache March. One of my friends is “required” by his work to grow a stache. I decided to join in and grew a killer handlebar. I still need to take a picture, but it most resembles Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame. It only took me two months to grow, but I'm pretty proud. My wife? Not so much.

-And Finally…Introducing Torqued off Tuesdays

I’ve been thinking about a way to create more interaction with fellow NASCAR fans and the loyal readers of my blog (I really appreciate the support by the way). A few years ago I worked at a sports radio station. They had a feature called “What Bugs you Wednesday.” Listeners would call in with their best bugs about sports, work, traffic or life in general. The best ones were pretty funny. So I’ve decided to try something similar beginning next Tuesday. Maybe something in Sunday’s race will get you torqued off, or a coworker that comes by your desk to ask if you got their email, or the dude that cut you off on the freeway. Whatever it is, leave a comment on Tuesday. I’ll come up with a few myself and see how it goes. I wish I had a prize for the best ones, but at least there’s the potential for some fun or catharsis.

Let me know what you think.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

How to improve Qualifying (I couldn't think of a better heading)

Two weeks ago at California Michael Waltrip threw down a qualifying lap that was 34th fastest. It was faster than 10 teams that made the race, but Waltrip took the long early voyage back across the country. After a tumultuous Speedweeks that saw Waltrip exit with negative points, it was another tough result for the #55 team. Four seasons ago Waltrip wouldn’t have had to worry about explaining to NAPA why they missed the race. The problem now is owner’s points. With the top 35 teams assured spots every Sunday, new teams face a serious challenge to make races. The challenge is compounded this year with so many new teams attempting the full Cup schedule.

A common response from fans is “go fast or go home.” It sounds simple, but the issue is far more complex than simply sending slow teams home. Eliminating all guaranteed spots is not possible. There are too many interests involved for this to work.

Fans come to watch the stars. It is one of the unique attractions that NASCAR can offer. Very few sports can guarantee that all of the top drivers will be in the same event every weekend. Even in golf, stars like Tiger Woods don’t play many of the smaller events.

A paying fan can bank of the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and almost every other top star will be in the race they choose to attend.

Without some assurance that the stars will race, it opens a door that NASCAR certainly doesn’t want opened. Say Tony Stewart cuts a tire in qualifying at Indianapolis. Suddenly one of the most popular drivers in the sport would not be in the field in one of the biggest races of the year. Stewart fans would miss seeing their favorite driver. Fans who hate Stewart miss out on the chance for their favorite driver to beat Stewart. Race fans as a whole would miss one of the top drivers at one of his favorite tracks. It goes beyond one driver too. If a driver wins, they want beat all the top drivers. Fans want to see a collection of all the top drivers their favorite included.

This also affects the large sponsors. Whether fans like it or not sponsors do have a large say in NASCAR. It makes things murky, but that’s the way it goes when Fortune 500 companies invest seven figures in the sport.

If you are a team inside the top 35, it is a tremendous advantage. First there is little need to work on qualifying setups during practice sessions. They can focus solely on running race trim if desired. Secondly, if they have a safe, slow qualifying lap there is no risk of smacking the wall and ruining a primary car during qualifying.

Guaranteed spots in the field will not go away, but it does need tweaking. The rule’s original intent was to provide some insurance for the teams that attempted every race. Maybe it made sense in 2005 when there were fewer than 43 full time teams. Now there are close to 50 with plans to enter all 36 races. Reduce the number of teams to somewhere between 20 and 25. That way anyone with realistic visions of making the Chase, and this presumably would include most stars, and let everyone else make the race on time.

Another related issue is the Champion’s provisional. NASCAR took a step in the right direction by capping its use to 6 races per season, but they can do more. Make it so a driver can’t use the provisional in consecutive races. That would eliminate teams from hiring a past champion to secure a top 35 spot after five races. Call it the Terry Labonte Rule (it’s nothing against Hall of Fame Racing or Labonte, they played by the rules).

Suddenly instead of 36 of 43 spots guaranteed, the number is reduced to 25. Suddenly 40% of the field is open to the fastest qualifying times. The locked-in drivers would still have an advantage, but it would even the playing field for making each race. Maybe it’s not perfect, but it would be a pretty good compromise.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Can Junior Make the Chase?

That is the pressing question in the media after the first two races. There are plenty of drivers at the bottom of the point standings, but Junior is the one everyone has an opinion on.

Matt Kenseth is the only driver to rebound from 30th or worse after two races to make the Chase. Lost of NASCAR writers and announcers love to cite this stat. This is based off of a whopping three years of data. In statistics that’s called a small sample size. Two races is not enough time to evaluate long-term success. The same applies to drawing conclusions or trends off of three seasons.

More data is needed to make a better argument. Going back to 2000 there are eight drivers that have rebounded from an early hole. That still is not a large number, but does show that one driver each year claws his way back to the front. If you factor in drivers 26th or worse that returned to the top12 by Richmond, the number jumps to 13.

Another factor on Junior’s (or Riggs, Truex, or Kahne) side is there are 12 Chase spots this year. In this scenario, Greg Biffle would have made the top 12 after Richmond. He sat in 38th place this time last year. The same goes for Tony Stewart who was 28th after California.

Looking deeper at history, in 1996 Terry Labonte sat 30th in points after two races. Apparently he felt the season was worth saving and wound up winning the Winston Cup. Under the old point system that is a much higher degree of difficulty. Drivers now just need to crack the top 12 by Richmond to have a shot at the coconut. Labonte also only had 31 total races compared to the current 36 race schedule.

Being locked into the top 35 is another advantage for Earnhardt Jr. Several drivers ahead of him in the points do not have owners points for the first five races. Joe Nemechek is currently inside the top ten, but if he misses a race that is a large point loss for him and other like drivers. Earnhardt is only 122 points outside of 12th place. That is not a large gap over the course of a season.

The biggest reason why a driver can recover from a bad start to make the Chase is being a good driver on a top team. In 2005 Kenseth ran well in the first two races, but lost an engine at Daytona and cut a tire late at California. He ran much better than his finishes showed. Over the course of the season he began getting the finishes and points he deserved.

The same goes for Junior and others. Earnhardt Jr is 23rd in driver rating. He has qualified 5th at both races and had a very fast car at California before the engine expired. The next two months also feature many of his top tracks: Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Talladega, Richmond. Obviously there are questions about DEI and the Car of Tomorrow. Love him or hate him (very few are neutral), Junior is one of the best drivers in Cup and that will go a long way at the beginning with the Car of Tomorrow, plus Tony Eury Jr gives him one of the best crew chiefs.

If Junior is still mired in the 20’s or 30’s after Bristol or Martinsville, then it’s time to panic. Until then, there is plenty of time for several drivers to catch up. Not to mention plenty of time for several writers to get a grip.

Las Vegas Entry Notes:

-54 Cup cars want to race at Vegas this week. 18 drivers will compete for seven transfer spots in the race. Ward Burton, Kevin LePage, Jeremy Mayfield, Mike Bliss, Brandon Whitt, Kenny Wallace and AJ Allmendinger will all try to make their first Cup race of 2007. Three strikes to start the season would be rough.

-Most kids get permission to drive the family car for special occasions like prom when they’re 17 or 18. Jon Wood had to wait until he was 25 for his chance. “Now son, I don’t want to see a scratch on it when you bring it home.” Wood makes his debut in the historic 21 car while Ken Schrader is bumped to a second Woods Brothers entry in the 47. That also means that Schrader has to make the race on speed. Aside from four races in 2003, Schrader has started every Cup race since 1985.

-Gibbs development driver Aric Almirola will also attempt his first Cup race. He drove full time in Trucks last season and will run a partial Busch schedule. He is also one of the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity candidates to make it to the national level. I’m surprised he wasn’t given a full ride at either trucks or Busch for 2007.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Mexico City Thoughts

A few thoughts I had while watching the Mexico Busch race, and my first viewing of the ESPN coverage.

-Juan-Pablo Montoya won a road race in the Busch Series. It was an impressive charge through the field, but let’s not get crazy now. He would have been a favorite had it been his first stock car race. He’s a better driver than any of the road course ringers, plus Ganassi has one of the top road course programs in NASCAR.

-Rusty Wallace missed the point with the Montoya-Pruett incident. He said Pruett would get over it with time. That’s fine, but Pruett only gets 3-4 chances each year to win a stock car race. If Montoya loses, he has full Busch and Cup schedules for other chances. Pruett does not and had a right to be angry. Wallace also cited that Montoya was the best car all day, so things essentially worked out. Apparently that makes everything ok. Montoya did have the best car and could have passed Pruett almost anywhere on the track. That’s what makes the incident more unnecessary. I wonder what Rusty would have said if Montoya bumped Steven Wallace out of the way.

-The first time ESPN checked in with Montoya under yellow, I thought, that’s cool. Then they did it under the very next caution and I thought, just leave his radio on the air and call it good. There are 40 other drivers plus crew chiefs to interview. Brad Parrott was interviewed several times, but they never interviewed anyone else. How about interviewing Boris Said after the race? If they are looking for entertainment, that’s the man to talk to.

-Check out Marcos Ambrose. Despite a late spin he finished 8th at Mexico City and sits 5th in the points. With fewer teams running the entire Busch schedule, he has a chance to finish in the top 10. He had a nice season in trucks last year and might attempt a few Cup races this year.

-In the three year history of the race, it was the finest showing for Mexican drivers. Two Mexican drivers finished in the top ten, Jorge Goeters (7th) and Adrian Fernandez (9th). Miguel Jordain finished 25th. Three drivers, Goeters, German Quiroga, and Carlos Contreras, also led laps during the race.

I guess it’s time to bring the big boys back for Vegas. New surface, tire questions, and of course the normal news cycles about Junior's contract, someone hating the Car of Tomorrow, someone hating Toyota and how certain teams must qualify for races. Heck, the season is three weeks old, it's probably time for a Silly Season rumor. It should be an interesting week.

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