Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nostradomus we're not

Back in February - not long after we dropped the green flag on this blog - Banktruck and I went on record with our predictions for the 2009 season. The sport was just awakening to the aftermath to an off-season bloodletting. Teams had shut down; wedding bells rang from marriages of convenience (e.g. Petty/Gillett, Earnhardt/Ganassi); crewmen were laid off; sponsorships were reduced, new teams were being formed - though we were to later learn most of them earned a paycheck by simply turning a lap or two; and questions loomed re: Dale Jr., Stewart-Haas Racing, and the remote possibility of a Jimmie Johnson 4-peat; etc.

Like it or not, here is the good, bad, and ugly realities of our pre-season predictions:

TMC's Tea Leaves

Daytona 500 winner - Kyle Busch - FAIL
Rookie of the year - Scott Speed - FAIL
- disclaimer: note I picked SS merely as a protest against the JoLo buzz.
Cup Champ - Jimmie Johnson - Ding, Ding, Ding - EPIC WIN
Underachiever - Casey Mears - WIN
Overachiever - Aric Almriola - FAIL
First driver to be fired - David Stremme - WIN - (Almirola was let go when the #8 team shut down. I don't view that the same as being fired.)
Will any manufacturer announce pull out? Yes - PUSH - Chrysler didn't announce pull out officially, but everyone left them but Penske. All that is missing is the press release.

Final 12 Chasers:
  • 99 - Cuzzin - WIN
  • 48 - JJ - WIN
  • 24 - Jeffy - WIN
  • 16 - Possum - WIN
  • 18 - Shrub - FAIL
  • 11 - Opie - WIN
  • 5 - Brett Favre - WIN
  • 29 - Happy - FAIL
  • 31 - Burton - FAIL
  • 33 - Bowyer - FAIL
  • 9 - Krispy Kreme - WIN
  • 42 - Montoya - WIN
75% hit rate - pretty good, huh? Tell me YOU didn't have RCR cars in your pre-season picks for the Chase.

Did I think the following would win a race in 2009?
  • 00 - Reutimann...No - FAIL. Sure, it was a fuel mileage win when the rains fell, but the official records for the 2009 World 600 will show Reutty got the hardware.
  • 07 - Casey Mears...Nope - WIN
  • 1 -T-Rex...Yes - FAIL - Two teams merged to form one yet operated as two. The Ganassi side made the Chase. The DEI side couldn't get out of its own way. Good luck at MWR T-Rex.
  • 2 - Kurt Busch...No - Ouch, FAIL. That's definitely a shot I'd like to have back. The deuce won twice.
  • 6 - David Gipper...Yes - FAIL - A microcosm of the rest of the underachieving Roush contingent.
  • 20 - Sliced Bread...No - FAIL - Like Reutty, JoLo stroked out a fuel mileage win. But he got a win nonetheless. Now if only Home Depot could tape a new commercial...please.
  • 29 - Happy Harvick...Yes - FAIL - This one seemed like an uncontested lay-up at the time, but who would have guessed an 0'fer year for all of RCR.
  • 33 - Hamburger Helper Bowyer...Yes - FAIL - Ditto
  • 42 - Juan Montoya...Yes - FAIL - He did everything but win. He led several races, was competitive, made the Chase, wrecked, scrapped with Smoke, etc. But he couldn't punch the rock into the end zone when it mattered.
  • 43 - Reed Coldsorespot...No - WIN
  • 82 - Scott Speed...No - WIN
  • 83 - Kris Kringle...Yes - WIN
  • 96 - Bobby Labonte...No - WIN
Banktruck's Bold, Ballsy Bluster

Daytona 500 winner - Jeff Gordon - FAIL
- both of our picks taken out by foolishness of Dale Jr. turning Brian Vickers into traffic
Rookie of the year - Joey Logano - WIN
Cup Champ - Carl Edwards - FAIL
Underachiever - Casey Mears - WIN
Overachiever - Tony Stewart - WIN
First driver to be fired - Aric Almirola - FAIL - As noted above, a team shut down is not the same as being fired.
Will any manufacturer announce pull out? Yes: PUSH - Chrysler didn't announce pull out, but everyone left them but Penske.

BT's final 12 Chasers:
  • Carl Edwards - WIN
  • Jeff Gordon - WIN
  • Mark Martin - WIN
  • Denny Hamlin - WIN
  • Jimmie Johnson - WIN
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr - EPIC FAILURE
  • Kyle Busch - FAIL
  • Jeff Burton - FAIL
  • Kevin Harvick - FAIL
  • Matt Kenseth - FAIL
  • Tony Stewart - WIN
  • Martin Truex Jr - FAIL
Only 50% hit rate - TMC wins!

BT's race winner predictions:
  • A.J. Almondjoy...nope - WIN - A win? Heck, A.J. didn't even lead a lap, yet arguably he did more with less in 2009 than anyone else in the series.
  • Sam Sideburns Hornish...nope - WIN - Wow, way to go out on a limb with that one BT.
  • Kasey Kahne't...yep - WIN. Kahne't? Yes he can - twice as a matter of fact.
  • Brad Keselowski...nope - FAIL - Smart pick but FAIL nonetheless. NO ONE could have foreseen the 09 team with BK at the wheel winning a race - not even at the unpredictable Dega.
  • Bobby Labonte...nope - WIN
  • Sliced Bread Logano...nope - FAIL
  • Mark Martin...yep - WIN - Hard to believe in retrospect this was even a point of debate. The old man made believers out of a lot of us.
  • Casey Mears...nope - WIN - A one and done year with RCR. This guy has blown through more jobs than George Castanza.
  • Paul Menard...nope - WIN - Careful, hope you didn't hurt yourself with that prediction.
  • JPM...nope - WIN
  • Flyin Ryan...yep - Oh so close but FAIL
  • Gipper 6...nope - WIN
  • Ewwiot Sadwer...nope - WIN
  • Gipper 78...nope - WIN
  • Reed Sorespot...nope - WIN
  • Scott NoSpeed...nope - WIN
  • Martin T-Rex...yep - FAIL
  • Brian FullofBull Vickers...nope - FAIL - The primary Red Bull car was surprisingly competitive much of the year. Vickers put the car on the pole a few times, won a race, and even made the Chase. Of course, he then disappeared like a fart in the breeze when the final 10 money races were run. Yet, 2009 has to be considered a step in the right direction for that team.
  • Mikey Waltrip...nope - WIN
Taken as a whole, I'd grade us collectively as a "B" for banking, beer, and B.S.

We tried our best to make some legit predictions. Some 2009 events; however, blindsided us like an aging quarterback drilled by a raging defensive end. Such as:
  • Jeremy Mayfield
  • Petty Motorsports' proposed acquisition of Yates Racing
  • Tony Stewart turning HaasCNC Racing into a contender with two cars.
  • Mark Martin having a legitimate shot at the championship with 10 races to go in the season.
  • The futility of Childress, Roush, Dale Jr. (well, maybe not so much on that last one...)
  • Marcos Ambrose, and
  • Reed Sorenson driving the #43 without a salary.
We'll try once again after the first of the year to see how 2010 might look.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

2009 in Review: The Hendrick Mystique

My apologies for being AWOL the second half of the season, but my life seems to be divided into two sections: pre-baby and post-baby. Training and running my first marathon July-November didnt help either.

Reflecting upon the season, a tip of the hat to TMC for bravely, and correctly, predicting an unprecedented 4th Cup for the 48 team. Perhaps he should play the lottery, as the odds against it were incredible, which is why I couldnt pick them.

My year-in-review post will be basically devoted to the incredible dynasty which is Hendrick Motorsports. Besides the 4th straight Cup, drivers finished 1 2 3 in points. This dynasty makes other modern-day sports dynasties pale in comparison: the 70's Steelers, the 80's 49ers, the 90's Cowboys, the 00's Patriots, the 80's Celtics and Lakers etc.

Since Dale Earnhardt won his last Cup in 1994, 15 seasons ago, HMS has won an incredible 9 Cups. 9 out of 15 during a period of increasing competitiveness. This includes streaks of 4 in a row from 1995-1998 and 2006-2009.

What makes for this Hendrick Mystique? I think I have finally figured it out, thanks to a little 1 hour inside look on Speed about a month ago. On Mondays, all 4 teams sit down with open notebooks and share everything. Not only do they have some of the smartest people in racing working there, they basically have 4 crew chiefs, 4 car chiefs etc on each car. Thats part A.

Part B is what happens at the track. Chemistry cant be over-rated but generally speaking these guys are calm, professional, and methodical in their approach to race day and during the race. Workmanlike, communication, almost surgical precision in everything they do, an absence of emotion, a focus.

Perhaps contrasts to other teams can better illustrate the point. At RCR they are still playing roundrobin with crew chiefs. Ditto Roush. Roush is the ultimate crew chief, calling too many shots, contra Rick Hendrick. Penske's guys dont even like each other let alone work together. JGR is closer, but there are some king-sized egos over there, too much "I" in "team."

The obvious exception at HMS, bearing more resemblance to the preceding paragraph than to his teammates, is the 88 team. In his 2nd unsuccessful season at HMS, at Talladega in November Jr dog-cussed his spotter and crew again at the end, calling them lazy &%$#@'s. He hasnt forgotten how to drive, and he has the best equipment in the series. What he lacks is that sense of teamwork that makes HMS what it is.

My personal opinion is he is not a very good communicator about his car ("this car sucks" is not adequate), and the only guy that could keep him on any kind of leash was Tony Jr, who is too old-school for today's technological Cup series. For 4 HMS teams to be competitive, somebody needs to get to Dale Jr and force him to grow up in his interpersonal relationship skills. That "someone" is Rick Hendrick himself.

A few years ago, he sat Jimmie and Chad down, served them milk and cookies, since they were behaving like children, and everyone got it all out in the open. Something similar needs to happen with Dale Jr. A fatherly chat. A dutch uncle. Whatever you call it, when Jr signed with HMS, he claimed Rick was like a father to him. It's time for Rick to act like Dale Sr would have for a talented driver who is way too big for his britches.

Incredible season for the 48, into the history books. And in my humble opinion, JJ nudges out JG by a nose on the all-time greatest driver list, by virtue of the 4 in a row. If youre interested, my list is:
1. (tie) Petty / Earnhardt
3. Pearson
4. Johnson
5. Gordon

Like TMC, I found my interest waning this season. But once the calendar changes to 2010 and teams head to Daytona for what's becoming SpeedMonth, I'll be back in the saddle.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2009 NASCAR in the rear view mirror

Matt Kenseth's double-up: Matt improbably wins the Daytona 500 and then backs it up with a bi-coastal win at California. He's ready to roll, right? Wrong. Not only does Kenseth not win again the rest of the year, the rest of the Roushketeers don't win the rest of the year except for a lone victory by lame duck Jamie McFrigginmurray deep in the year.

Dega: Brad Keselowski held his line at Talladega, Carl Edwards said "I dare ya", and Brad responded with OK. Cuzzin tears down the fence, and Brad continues for a jaw-dropping win.

Kez seems to have a ton of talent. Yet how he managed to win with his limited experience and in a perennial also-ran #09 James Finch car still baffles me. Admittedly, this was no hand-me-down Chevrolet - it was Hendrick Motorsports-built car just for Keselowski. Yet the driver had to race it, and the crew had to pit it. Its still amazing. The question of the future, however, is one of continuity. Will Kez be the next Cup superstar? Or will he be the next Bobby Hillin, Jr., Ron Bouchard, Phil Parsons, or Greg Sacks?

A restoration of history: The race name "Southern 500" returned to Darlington. Running it Mother's Day weekend rather than Labor Day isn't the same, but at least its a start.

All Star Wooooo! = NOOOOO!: A burn-out contest judged by Ric Flair, Kevin Costner, and Randy Moss?

And then having Joey Logano announced as the "fan's favorite" for the all-star race wild card entry? The all-star race has truly jumped the shark. The funniest part of the whole deal for me is that Flair leaked the news about Logano, and suddenly Twitter entries ran wild - several minutes before the announcement could be made on TV.

Coke 600: Scrambled eggs, sausage, and a Schaefer to start the day on a promising North Carolina spring morning...before the rain set-in to rain out the Coke 600. Had I known how much rain was going to fall, I would have chosen Noah in the Ark as the race winner in our pick 'em pool.

And then when the rains subsided on Monday...David Reutimann? A win? Really, is that even it?
The King returns: 2009 was truly a year of transition, turmoil, and mild success for Richard Petty Motorsports (more below). In the end, however, it was very cool to see The King back in victory lane. Sure, we all know he was there simply as a figure head for the team. But it brought a big smile to my face seeing him knocking back some Napa Valley red with winner Kasey Kahne.

Brickyawn: Is is still necessary to return to Indy year after year? NASCAR has proven its point. The stockers can run there though not with the routine side-by-side competition it has at other tracks or IRL cars have at Indy. The track can still sell a lot of tickets but not near enough to even fake promote it as a sell-out. The racing is terrible, the view for the fans is terrible, the TV coverage is terrible. Indy is an American, iconic, legendary speedway, but it should resume being an open-wheeled facility only. If NASCAR continues to run there, however, it really needs to move the date to a more meaningful date than its current random end-of-July or early-August date.

Where there is Smoke...: For the first 26 races, Stewart-Haas Racing realized success early and often. An all-star win, four wins for Tony, 2 poles and 15 top 10s for Ryan Newman, and Chase slots for both cars - pretty good marks for the team. TV announcers repeatedly tried to tell us this was the "first year" for the team. Clearly it wasn't as Gene Haas' team has been around a few years. But with Tony, Ryan, new crew chiefs, and a new attitude, the team's cars soared to levels it had not seen before. Certainly the pressure will be on Tony to improve his stock a bit next year and get Newman to victory lane and more consistent week to week.

Surprise #1 - The Aussie mate: Marcos Ambrose showed the Cup regular his skills extend beyond road courses. He finished 18th in points in his first full Cup season essentially driving a Michael Waltrip Racing Yota. Crikey, how does that happen? Props to him for doing so though.

Surprise #2 - the other furinner: Unlike other open wheel posers who ventured to Cup only to get spanked back from whence they came, Juan Pablo Montoya has honed his skills, listened to his crew chief, learned from other drivers, and solidly made the Chase. Bonus points paid to him for (1) creating a dust-up with Smoke in the final race (2) joining the ranks of Twitter and (3) completely ignoring the head-scratching "eating tacos" comment by Bob Griese. The guy has talent and drove smartly throughout the year. Why racing fans still refuse to give him his due is beyond me.

Turn off the lights, the party's over: In January, Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to become RPM. The 43 was on the track, and the King was still at the track. But for the first time since the formation of NASCAR, Petty Enterprises was no more.

Kasey Kahne returned the team to victory lane twice during the year. It was surreal, however, seeing Richard Petty exuberant over winning while celebrating with a Budweiser-sponsored #9 car.

I was a harsh critic of Reed Sorenson in the #43. A little over half-way through the year, we we learned he had been racing for FREE when team management gave him the ultimatum of racing for free or taking a walk. Suddenly, he went from underachieving to overachieving in my mind.

A last minute, planned part-time 4th RPM program for A.J. Allmendinger turned into a full season ride, zero DNFs (though zero laps led to be fair), and contract with RPM through 2010. I wished A.J. could be hired when Red Bull sidelined him in 2008. Little did I know how well it would work out for him. I'm really looking forward to his running the #43 next year.

Late in the season, news emerges that RPM plans to acquire Yates Racing and change to Ford. So they offload volunteer driver Reed Sorenson but then PAY money to hire a salaried Paul Menard. With this kind of decision making, its no wonder Kahne has hinted he may bolt after 2010.

Speed round:
  • Introduction of double-file restarts was long overdue but well worth the wait.
  • Shout out to Monte Dutton, Matt McLaughlin, Rick Houston, and John Daly.
  • Goodbye David Poole, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, and Yates Racing.
  • So long Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and DeWalt Tools.
  • Top TV coverage: #1 TNT, #2 FOX, #5 ESPN (so bad they don’t deserve spots 3 or 4)
  • California Speedway has two races too many.
  • I thought Mark Martin would be competitive, but daaannggg....
I'm glad the season is over. My interest level is probably lower than its ever been - especially with demise of Petty Enterprises, the forced retirement of Kyle Petty, rare appearances by Sterling Marlin, prima donna drivers with entitlement 'tudes, etc.

But when the calendar turns to January and Speedweeks is back on horizon, I reckon my interest will return like a bad rash needing an itch.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Alan Kulwicki: A video history lesson

Jimmie Johnson continues to march towards his 4th consecutive championship - despite his Texas troubles today. He has an army of engineers and mechanics, a hall of fame crew chief, an owner with a bottomless wallet, and a "do over" fake championship deciding points system.

Its hard to believe its been 17 years since Alan Kulwicki won his one and only championship at Atlanta in 1992. Its even harder to believe the number of fans who know little or nothing about him. NASCAR exploded with new fans in the mid to late 1990s as Dale Earnhardt continued to win championships and the new guy, Jeff Gordon, carved out his own legacy with wins and championships. Later, the sport attracted even newer fans as Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and even Juan Pablo Montoya joined the circuit.

Gordon made his debut in the Cup series in the same race Alan Kulwicki won his championship. To add even more drama, The King - Richard Petty - wrapped up his storied career in the same race.

I was at the last race of the 1992 season to see my hero wrap up his career and to witness the championship battle between Kulwicki, Bill Elliott, and Davey Allison. It seems only yesterday I was there. Yet its been 17 years.

The King banked 7 championships. Earnhardt won a handful in the 1990s to bring his own total to seven. Gordon has four - a number soon to be matched by Johnson. Kulwicki captured only one - yet did not survive even six months after winning it to serve as reigning champion.

ESPN prepared this nice, respectful piece about Alan's start, his championship run, and his passing.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Talla-do-over? Ah let's just move on

The race? Fuhgetaboutit. Everyone else has covered it better and much more quickly than me, so I'll throw out another random list of what's on my mind.

Staying out late not a "best buy" for A.J.Allmendinger

The fallout from A.J. Ibeendrinkin's DUI arrest last week was surprisingly pretty minimal. The King is apparently standing behind him as is Best Buy (for 2010) and his multiple sponsors for rest of this year. Yet, it isn't good. You simply can't have race drivers getting arrested for DUI in 2009 - even if the sport's roots are grounded in 'shine runners back in 1949.

The relevance of Twitter

#1 - One of the funniest tweets I read about predictions for Halloween in the Talladega infield:

I haven't seen any pictures from the weekend to prove/disprove the prediction. Banktruck, however, said he saw someone dressed in a Wonder Bread driver uni. Close enough I think!

#2 - Denny Hamlin gave a shout-out to his supporters on Twitter in last week's Martinsville victory lane. He also uploaded a picture of a congratulatory sign left outside his Mooresville house to Twitpic.

#3 - Kyle Busch exclaimed "That. Just. Happened" ala Ricky Bobby after he won Saturday's truck race at Talladega. He was baited to do so by Jeff Gluck of Gluck told us on Twitter about the challenge. KyBu has so far said he has no plans to sign-up for Twitter, but he did get a big kick out of folks responding to Gluck's dropped gautlet. Sure nuff, when he won on Saturday - at Talladega no less - he paid up by saying it.

Now if only the 88 driver can McGrow a pair again

So Lance McGrew finally gets named as the full-time, unenviable job of crew chief for Dale Jr. in 2010. What was his status before? Crew Chief Intern? When will they start calling Lance "Jim Dandy"?

A bit perplexing are some of the comments from Ol' Junebug and McGrew about attitude, mental outlook, performance issues between the ears vs. under the hood, etc. Its also interesting about "changes" McGrew hopes to make in tandem with Alan Gustafson on Mark Martin's team. Think the Ageless Arkansan might raise a question or two about any planned restructuring?

One particular quote from Dale Jr. really made me laugh though.
“I can’t speak for everybody on the team, but my confidence was pretty down earlier,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s gotten better."
When I read that quip, I was immediately reminded of one of the funniest scenes of Monty Python's The Search for the Holy Grail (most relevant part starting at 1:20 mark).

Maybe Rodney Dangerfield was right

Just want to make sure I understand. Joe Gibbs Racing started the 18 team with Dale Jarrett and had a lot of success. When DJ moved to Yates Racing, JGR hired Bobby Labonte who helped take the team to the next level with many wins and a championship. When Bobby left for Petty Enterprises, JGR hired...J.J. Yeley? Remember that? (And don't forget JGR hired Jason Leffler as the initial driver of the FedEx #11 team before Hamlin.)

Steve Addington was faced with the almost impossible challenge of keeping a championship-caliber team together with a driver having even less talent than Paul Menard after a bender. After surviving that period of time, JGR woke up and wisely signed an angry Kyle Busch. KyBu wanted to win early and often. More important to him, he wanted to beat the Hendrick cars into submission.

So what happened? Well, we know what took place. Its only been the last two years, right? They smoked 'em. Addington put a team under Shrub that allowed him and the 18 team to return to its DJ and Bobby days -maybe even higher.

But with the good came the bad. KyBu is not a stroker - we know that. But he is a sore loser, bad mouths his team on national TV, and often gives up if he's not on the point. As a result, he didn't win the Cup in 2008 and failed to make the top 12 cut at all in 2009. Rather than work through the challenges of what needs to happen in 2010, what does JGR do? Knock Addington off the box. I think this move is nonsensical.

You can hear the hurt and frustration in Steve's quotes about the change, his future plans, and the definition of "success" in today's Cup racing:
"I've got a lot of respect for this organization and the people in it," he said. "But you sit back and you wonder, what do you got to do because you beat a lot of great guys in this garage in the past 18 months. And you start questioning what do you got to do to be successful in this business?

I've been with the No. 18 car for five years and the past two years have been awesome, and I think it's just, you just question what you have to do to make it over here."

Dave Rogers is a great crew chief on the Nationwide series, and I'm surprised its taken him this long to get promoted to a Sunday gig. But to get the bump at the expense of Addington, man oh man I'm just not sure that's good for all involved.

Cue Queen's Another One Bites The Dust

Nashville Speedway (the half-mile fairgrounds track - not the under-attended Dover-owned speedway) used to be one of THE places in the south to cut your teeth in late models with the hopes of movin' on up. Darrell Waltrip, CooCoo and Sterling Marlin, Mike Alexander, Casey Atwood, Jeff Green, etc. all ran here regularly over the years. From 1959 to 1984, NASCAR brought its top Grand National/Winston Cup drivers to town - many seasons twice a year. But no more. The backasswards Metro Council gubmunt and Mayor have finally pulled the plug on what has been a colossal screw-up by those organizations over the last 25-30 years. The city will be shutting down all of the fairgrounds including the speedway in 2010.

To add insult to injury, Dover announced its shuttering Memphis Motorsports Park and moving its dates to Nashville Superspeedway and Gateway Raceway near St. Louis.

OK East Tennessee, its all up to you. Bristol is about all we have left - and that track is almost in Virginia. We even lost Atomic Speedway dirt track just outside of Knoxville a year or so ago. Tennessee went from a vibrant motorsports date to having almost nothing other than a few bullrings in just a few short years. Sadly, this reality is not limited to the Volunteer State. I just feel it more acutely because its the state I call home.