Monday, February 9, 2009

The Final Four



With the first weekend of Daytona Speedweeks now officially in the books and 39 of 43 drivers locked into the Daytona 500 field, Thursday will be go-or-go-home time for the 17 racers battling for the final four spots.

Thursday is when the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races, which will be televised live on SPEED at 2 p.m., will take place. Two drivers from each Duel will advance to join the 39 drivers already in the field, those being Daytona 500 pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr., second-qualifier Mark Martin, the remaining 33 cars in the top 35 in 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup owner points, plus Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil, Tony Stewart and Terry Labonte.

The first Duel has just seven cars looking to transfer: Joe Nemechek, Scott Riggs, Brad Keselowski, Kirk Shelmerdine, Tony Raines, Mike Skinner and Carl Long. On paper, Nemechek, Riggs and Keselowski seem to be the best bets to advance, because the other four have been bog slow.

The second Duel is a little harder to handicap, as it features 10 drivers trying to make it in: Regan Smith, Boris Said, AJ Allmendinger, Jeremy Mayfield, Mike Wallace, Mike Garvey, Derrike Cope, Kelly Bires, Norm Benning and Geoff Bodine. Out of this group, I like Smith and Allmendinger to move up, though Said, Wallace and Mayfield all have a shot. For the rest of the hopefuls, though, it’s unlikely they’ll make the 500.

• • •

If Saturday night’s Bud Shootout is any indication, we ought to have an epic Daytona 500. The oft-criticized new-generation NASCAR race car seems to run especially well at plate tracks, and the fact that it is so difficult to handle means the entire field is on the ragged edge for virtually all the race.

The key to victory, it seems, will be teamwork. These cars are closely enough matched where it isn’t going to be as it was in years past where a Gordon or an Earnhardt or a Jarrett had the field covered. Instead, we well could have a case of déjà vu all over again, a repeat of last year, when Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch hooked up to make two merely good cars all of a sudden great. Then again, Kevin Harvick, made another banzai charge to victory in the Shootout, just as he did in the Daytona 500, so you never know.

Elsewhere, the winter testing ban has received near-universal positive marks from racers. Everyone showed up at Daytona rested, energized and ready to race — quite an improvement from last year’s pre-season testing marathon at Daytona, Southern California and Las Vegas.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Reality Check


Reality began to sink in on Saturday for the myriad new teams attempting to make the Daytona 500 field. The top-35 cars in 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup owner points are locked into the 500, meaning 22 other drivers will be fighting for the remaining eight spots.

And with one of those reserved for Tony Stewart, who will make the race either on merit or by virtue of being the most recent past champion, that leaves 21 drivers for seven spots.

A handful of go-or-go-homers looked good in the opening day of Daytona 500. Two-time 500 winner Bill Elliott, who will have to race his way into the field, was atop the speed charts for most of the day in his Wood Brothers Racing Ford, finishing both sessions in P1.

The best looking of the start-up teams was Scott Riggs in Tommy Baldwin’s Toyota, which was 16th overall in the first session and third among the go-or-go-home cars. Joe Nemechek also was impressive in his own NEMCO Motorsports Toyota, which was 25th overall and fourth of the go-or-go-home cars.

But for many of the new kids on the block, practice was a sobering exercise in how far behind they are. In the first of two rounds of practice Saturday, positions 46-57 were all occupied by go-or-go-home teams. In the second practice, everyone from 47th on back were go-or-go-homers, too.

How bad was it? The first 30 cars in the opening round of practice were separated by a mere 0.473 seconds around the 2.5-mile track. The gap from 31st to 56th, on the other hand, was 4.582 seconds. A lot of guys who came to Daytona with high hopes will leave with their dreams dashed after Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Show Time


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You can tell the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are ready to go racing again, especially since they didn’t have to come to Daytona last month to go and test. By now, just about everyone’s sick of talking about racing and ready to actually be racing.

Asked what the hardest part of his job is, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, “Answering a lot of questions. I got to answer so many damn questions. I never wanted to be asked so many questions. I just wanted to drive but that’s not all there is to it.”

Speaking of Earnhardt, his performance tailed off noticeably at the end of last season. But now that he has new teammate Mark Martin bird-dogging him to workout, it’ll be interesting to see if Junior finishes 2009 stronger than he did ’08. “There is a time in your life you have to take a little responsibility and try and take a little bit better care of yourself,” said Earnhardt. “I have 20/13 vision in each eye and both eyes together. But my cholesterol got a little bit higher, so I am trying to eat better and not eat so many fried foods. Trying to drink a lot more water too, drink too many sodas. It is like 300 times better for you.”

• During last month’s media tour in Charlotte, I caught a few minutes with Max Jones, co-owner of Yates Racing, who was very enthusiastic about new hire Paul Menard. “I think Paul’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Jones told me.

Well Menard will get his first chance to impress in Saturday night’s Bud Shootout, where he’ll start from the pole, thanks to picking the winning number in Thursday night’s Shootout Draw party. “It’s a great way to start the year,” said Menard. “Just being in the Shootout first off is pretty exciting. This is gonna be my first one and to have all the guy working on that car and then we can translate a lot of that to our (Daytona) 500 car, too, so it will be a big test session for us. We’ll learn a lot and just have some fun.”

• There will be dueling pace cars at Daytona International Speedway this year. Chevrolet had been the official car of Daytona for as long as anyone could remember, but the financial crisis at General Motors has forced the company to scale back its track sponsorships.

As a result, a 2010 Ford Shelby GT500 will pace Saturday’s Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200, the opening round of the 2009 ARCA/ReMax Series, as well as Thursday’s Gatorade Duels and the Feb. 14 Camping World 300, the NASCAR Nationwide Series season-opener.

Chevrolets will pace the remainder of Speedweeks, with the all-new 2010 Camaro slated to lead the Daytona 500 field to the green flag on Feb. 15.

• Kasey Kahne’s key to an improved 2009? Do better on off days. “On the bad days, we need to finish in the top 25,” Kahne said. “Last year we were in the 35s and 40s. We can’t have days like that. We need to keep working on consistency. Obviously, we want to win races. Last year, we won three. Hopefully, we can do at least that this year in the Budweiser Dodge.”
• Among the myriad small, start-up teams in the garage this weekend, the one that might be furthest along is Tommy Baldwin Racing, which garage sources said already has been to the wind tunnel twice to fine-tune the Toyota driven by Scott Riggs.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Daytona Media Day


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Thursday was Media Day at Daytona International Speedway, where drivers spend large parts of their respective days getting photographed, recorded on video, interviewed by TV, radio, print and Internet media, and in general make themselves available to we in the press.

No blockbusters today, but some good stuff nonetheless:

• Tony Stewart refused to shake my hand today, and for that I am eternally grateful. “Smoke,” like my others in frigid Daytona, is suffering from a bad head cold, but should be good to go for the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night. “I’ve never looked forward to driving a car more so I can quit talking about it,” he told me.

• Aaron’s will sponsor David Reutimann for the full season, not half the year as it had previously agreed to. The collapse of the Arena Football League, where Aaron’s was a sponsor, freed up a few extra bucks.

• Mark Martin’s hiring might be the smartest personnel move Rick Hendrick has made in years. Martin told me he’s riding herd on the team to be in as good a shape as he is, and that’s saying a lot. That means Martin’s pushing Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to be more fit.

• Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose and Sam Hornish are locked into the top 35 in NASCAR Sprint Cup owners points and therefore guaranteed the first six races of 2009.

• Even though he’s just 18 years old, Joey Logano seems to have a good head on his shoulders. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Logano said of his promotion to the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. “I don’t think anyone would ever turn down a ride like this. No, I didn’t expect it. But, when I heard Tony (Stewart) was going to leave and my name got thrown in a hat — yeah I was going to go for it and this is where we’re at.”

• Carl Edwards bought a 425-acre farm in Central Missouri, but doesn’t yet know what he’s going to do with it.

• Daytona International Speedway is slashing concession prices and offering more and better food. About time, if you ask me.

Check back here tomorrow and I’ll have a whole lot more from Daytona.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

This Bud's For You


Guess what? Automobile racing has lived through the worst global economic collapse since the Great Depression. And as a result, the green flag will fly on a new NASCAR season Saturday night with the running of the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.

Fortunately, the weather should be warmer by then. Tonight, the forecast is calling for a low of 25 degrees in Daytona Beach, which if you live in Michigan would be downright balmy for this time of year, but is damned cold in central Florida.

Still, better to be cold and racing than to be cold and not racing. And after a winter’s worth of doom and gloom, the Shootout comes at a good time. This year, there will be 28 entries, seven from each of the four automakers in the Sprint Cup Series.

From Chevrolet: Casey Mears, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

From Dodge: Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, Kasey Kahne, David Stremme, Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson and AJ Allmendinger. Footnote: This will be Robby Gordon’s only race in a Dodge this year. After that, he switches to Toyota.

From Ford: David Ragan, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Bobby Labonte, Paul Menard and Carl Edwards.

From Toyota: David Reutimann, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip, Scott Speed and Brian Vickers.

There will be two segments to the races: a 25-lapper at the start, followed by a 10-minute break and a 50-lap run to the checkers. And given that the new car seems to run well on restrictor-plate tracks, the Shootout ought to be an interesting race.

Last year, of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored an emotional triumph in the Shootout, his first race with Hendrick Motorsports. Will lightning strike twice? We’ll see on Saturday night.

Thursday at Daytona is Media Day, so there will be plenty more to report on tomorrow night. See you then.

Monday, February 2, 2009

2009 Predictions


Alright, gang, I head to Daytona Wednesday morning at 0 dark 30. Can’t wait to see the first on-track action of 2009 — I’ll bring you lots of news and photos every day from Speedweeks. .

But first, some predictions about what to look for at Speedweeks and for the rest of the season:

• Kyle Busch will win at least one race during Speedweeks, most likely the Daytona 500.

• Mark Martin will also win a race during Speedweeks.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t. Neither will Carl Edwards or Jeff Gordon.

• Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman both finish in the top 20 in points in their first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, but neither driver makes the Chase.

• First-time teams to win races in 2009: Stewart-Haas, Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.

• Brian Vickers and David Ragan will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in 2009.

• Kurt Busch will be the only Dodge driver in the Chase.

• Scott Speed bests Joey Logano for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors.

• A whole mess of teams that didn’t race full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year will try to race a full schedule in 2009. These include Phoenix Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Prism Motorsports, the Bodine Brothers, NEMCO Motorsports, Kirk Shelmerdine and others. Prediction: Three of these teams will make at least 30 races in 2009.

• Jimmie Johnson sets a NASCAR record with his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New (Old) Kid On The Block

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As always, there will be plenty of fascinating stories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year, even if many of them are of the train-wreck variety, thanks to the prevailing economic conditions.

To me, though, one of the most compelling will what Mark Martin is able to accomplish at Hendrick Motorsports. Martin, of course, was supposed to retire after the 2005 season, but NASCAR’s version of Benjamin Button seems to be getting younger, not older. Even if he remains as curious and enigmatic as ever. How many former Arkansas dirt-track racers, after all, are big fans of the rapper 50 Cent?

While much has been made over the years that Martin is the greatest driver to never win a Sprint Cup title, to me that sort of misses the point. Even though he’s now 50 years old, Martin can still bring his A game. He races hard, he races clean and this year, he’ll shock some people with what he can do.

Recall that not only did he come within inches of winning the 2007 Daytona 500, but he followed that up with finishes of fifth at California and Las Vegas, 10th at Atlanta and third at Texas driving for a Ginn Racing squad that didn’t have a fraction of the resources that the Hendricks and Roushes had.

If you talk to the guys at Hendrick they are thrilled to have Martin on board for a full season in ’09. “If you can't get along with Mark Martin, you can't get along with anybody,” says team owner Rick Hendrick. “He is such a neat person, and gracious and respectful of all these other guys. He fits like a glove. He came into our trailer in Phoenix and has been sharing stuff with our guys. He is going to make us all better.”

“The amount of respect that everybody in the series has for him is really the one thing that sticks out about Mark,” adds Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Everybody likes Mark and everybody thinks a lot of him. To me he is a role model in that aspect. … He's going to be fast and he's going to be hard to beat.”

Jeff Gordon, who waged some titanic championship battles with Martin in the late ‘90s, is fired up, too. “Mark is one hot commodity, even at 50 years old,” says Gordon. “He's extremely talented, very committed, and very capable of winning races and a championship.”

Here’s the bottom line: Martin is joining a team that has a four-time Sprint Cup champion in Gordon, a three-time defending Cup champion in Jimmie Johnson and an excellent driver in Earnhardt.

If somehow Martin manages to capture a championship this year, beating those three established superstars on his own team, plus Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and the rest of the power hitters in NASCAR, it would be a bigger upset than the Arizona Cardinals winning the Super Bowl.

It would also be the single best story in NASCAR since the late Alan Kulwicki’s improbable title run in 1992.

Race fans regularly ask me who my favorite driver is or who I root for. I always tell them the same thing: I don’t have a favorite driver. What I root for is a great story, a compelling, dramatic finish or an improbable outcome to a race or a championship. For sure, seeing Mark Martin win it all this year would be an epic story, one for the ages.

And believe me, it would be a story that would write itself.

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