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In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver by any measure. Officially, he’s run away with the award in fan voting four years in a row. He carries both the legacy of his late father, who won seven championships, and the loyalty of an entirely new generation of young fans.
Winning the Nextel Cup championship isn’t just a goal for the 32-year-old star. To millions of fans, it is his destiny. He’s getting closer. In 2006, he finished fifth in the final points standings, trailing only Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Given his resurgence following a disappointing 2005 season, Earnhardt Jr. must be considered one of the favorites for the 2007 crown.
It’s not easy, though, given the extraordinary expectations, not to mention the hopes and dreams that follow the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet on every single lap around a NASCAR track.
As this interview attests, Junior handles it all with remarkable grace and humility, and those are characteristics that reflect the character of a champion.
Athlon Sports: When you look at your popularity, I don’t think it can all be attributed to the fact that you are Dale Earnhardt’s son. Sure, you inherited the loyalty of most of your father’s fans, but I think one of the big keys is that people see you as your own man and, especially with young fans, a voice of your generation. You’ve got enough confidence and self-reliance to be yourself. Is that harder than it looks?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I was just worried about what everybody thought early in my career, and now, you get to the point to where you feel like you’ve paid your dues and you’ve just got to make yourself happy. If that doesn’t suit everybody, that doesn’t suit everybody, and that’s just the way the world is.
AS: Life can be a progression in which a man finds out that things he once blindly accepted were wrong. When you reach your 30s, you kind of stumble across the concept of wisdom. Have you experienced that?
DE: Wisdom? I’m not there yet. I think I understand the concept because I kind of watched my daddy get there … and other people that I’ve known over the years, other family members growing up. Right now, I’m at the common-sense level. I’m not at the wisdom level. The wisdom level’s yet to come.
AS: You’ve been through a lot. Do hard times make you better and tougher?
DE: Absolutely. I think, yeah, there are certain things in this world that could happen to me that might break me, but it ain’t happened yet. Things that are tough do make you stronger. I think the 2005 season made me better — like other things, my granddaddy died and my daddy died, dealing with watching my family go through some issues — those type things make you tougher day to day, but the year I had in ’05 made me more appreciative.
One thing I got was more appreciative of the people I work with. I don’t know why. The guys I had in ’05 were good. It wasn’t like I saw what it was like to be around a bunch of bums. They weren’t bad people, and they knew what they were doing. I missed Tony (Eury) Jr. a lot, and being back with him is good because I missed him and I missed working with him. I missed that trust and the belief, I guess, I had in him. He’s matured, and he’s got all these guys behind him and believing in him. He’s got all these people working on his team and believing in me. That sort of inspired me.
Steve Hmiel taught me a lot. Everybody’s got their faults. Everybody’s got their issues. Maybe he could hold his temper better, but Steve taught me a lot about, really, where racing is in your life, where it ranks in importance. In the past, I bounced around between family and friends, back and forth, and I settled a lot of questions I had in life. Every time we had a problem — every single disaster — he (Hmiel) had a way to settle it down and calm it down. He helped me get the deal and come out the other end where you could actually go home and live with yourself and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror.
I learned a lot. To be in a position I’m in now … to have given it all away and gotten it back … that’s a blessing.
AS: What role does Steve Hmiel take now? I’m assuming you don’t have as close contact with him now, but is he still one of people you rely on?
DE: Absolutely. One of the reasons why I like working with Steve is I have a lot more respect for him. I have way more respect for Steve than I had for Pete (Rondeau) because I’ve known Steve for a long time. I trust Steve. They might know the same stuff. One might not be any better than the other, but it was, I guess, just a matter of respect and authority. There were certain lines I’d never cross over with Steve, whereas I might with Pete or even now with Tony Jr. You can’t overstate how much Steve helped prepare me for getting back together with Tony Jr. The thing about Tony Jr. is, when you cross those lines with him, he’ll throw it right back at you and keep you in check. Either way works out. You have enough respect that you won’t cross that line with them, Steve and Tony Jr., and if you do, it’s a different situation (than with Rondeau) because you know each other so well, and they’re strong enough to throw it back at you.
At this point in his career, I think Steve (Hmiel’s) a little over-qualified for being a crew chief, because of what he’s been through and achieved in his career and what he’s accomplished. He needs to be the Director of Motorsports, to have a position supervising the whole operation. He serves our team better handling the wind-tunnel stuff and the body-shop stuff instead of this. Those are the things he should be doing, and he needs to be doing. When Steve was my crew chief, it wasn’t a long-term solution, but it was a solution that worked very well at the time, one that got us and me back on track. After Steve came in and straightened things out, we went into the 2006 season and knew we didn’t have any excuses anymore. The cars were better, and every time we changed something, the car improved. The finishes got better. It was obvious that Steve improved things because he knew what he was doing, and that’s not something that got as much attention as it probably should have, but within the team, we all knew what a great effect Steve Hmiel had on the team and how much he set a standard and laid a groundwork for better things.
AS: Have you learned to cope with adversity better?
DE: Oh, yeah, that’s another lesson I learned when we had a bad year, didn’t make the Chase, in ’05. We could go back to the shop, and work and work and work, and come back two days later and not run any faster than we’d been running. You just have to go through experiences week after week after week to find speed, and that’s not found in how late you stay at work.
AS: Who taught you to be your own man? Was it your father?
DE: I didn’t really learn all that from my daddy. I learned as much from Gary Hargett (who ran his short-track teams before he moved up to the Busch Series and then Cup) and the people I spent most of my time with.
A lot of people don’t know him (Hargett) and probably never will, but I admired him because of what a ‘smartass’ he was. Gary always had a comment and a quote for every moment, and my mom was probably the same way. I was racing late models with Gary for three years, and every weekend we were together. That sort of molded my personality coming into the Busch Series.
I didn’t really get that from Dad, or Tony (Eury) Sr. (his uncle and crew chief in the Busch Series and Cup through 2004), maybe Tony Jr. a little bit, because he’s pretty much his own man. Those are the two men (Hargett and Eury Jr.) I admired the most at that time and still do today.
Darrell Waltrip was pretty good. Rusty (Wallace) was pretty good at that, and those were the guys I watched my dad race. I didn’t pay much attention to Dad’s interviews and how Dad was, personality-wise, in front of the cameras. Dad’s whole deal was a persona. … It was real, but he was like John Wayne. Like I said, it was a persona. He sold the merchandise, and all that stuff sold his personality.
AS: It did seem to get under your skin when people wrote that you were ‘overrated.’ First of all, given your popularity, it’s kind of unavoidable for some to make that observation, but, secondly, doesn’t that kind of come with the territory?
DE: I’ve got a big old core group of fans, and they totally overshadow all of the negative things that you hear yourself or you hear that somebody said about you. When I have a bad weekend, I get letters about how to keep my head up and keep digging, and how everybody is behind me. … Even the people that aren’t my fans, they aren’t going to write me about how happy they are that I didn’t run good.
I know what I’m capable of, and I know I haven’t reached those capabilities yet, so that’s disappointing. These are good years for me and my career at this age, and to not be able to reach that potential and not be able to accomplish the goals is difficult and disappointing. You just try to remedy whatever you feel like the faults are and try to maintain a positive attitude. That’s probably the most important thing, to stay positive around your team. Negative attitudes sort of spread like a virus through the team and can really self-destruct the whole program.
AS: You and your cousin, Tony Eury Jr., are close personally as well as professionally. What changed in the year apart? Did the two of you need that separation, and was it a good thing in the long run?
DE: Well, I think, yes. On my side of it, I think I appreciate what Tony Jr. does more than I once did. I think, too, that he believes or takes to heart everything I’m saying and tries to use that as information more so than in the past. You know, we’re both just showing each other a lot more respect. When I’m talking about the car and when he’s putting the (chassis) setup under there or wanting to make a change, I’m going with it 100 percent. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to work. We’re going to try to maintain that respect because that’s sort of the key to keeping each other happy.
One of us has got to get out and sort of pat the other on the back and put his nose back to the grindstone a little bit and try to get it back where it was. … Now I go to every race track with a lot of confidence. … That was pretty much what I needed to do as my end of the bargain. Now my determination shows outwardly, and I don’t keep it all in anymore.
AS: You competed for a championship last year. Is this going to be the year you win it?
DE: First of all, I think that’s always the goal. You’ve got to set the bar high, and the championship was the goal last year and the year before that. I think the year we had in 2006 might make it more realistic, and we might come into this year with more momentum and optimism, stuff like that.
I don’t really know exactly what the expectations are, but I know that they’re high. I know people want us to win or expect us to win, expect me to be a contender, you know, week-in, week-out, and, you know, there are a lot of variables. There were a lot of variables in my dad’s day. He had sort of up-and-down years earlier in his career trying to get with the right program and the right people.
Even he wasn’t the sole reason why those guys won all those championships. It came down to every one of them having some sort of a talent and some way to fit the pieces to the puzzle together. … There are a lot of things that play into winning races and being successful year-in and year-out. … I feel like I can win a championship. I’m a good enough racecar driver, so, basically, that’s what we just focus on — go out and win races and win that championship.
I have good confidence in myself, but I don’t know if I have realized my potential, personally. I don’t know if I’ve realized exactly how capable of driving a racecar I am. With that said, I feel like I got most of the field covered, but I still think there’s a lot more to it and a lot more to learn.
AS: Success is enjoyable, but it really doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t mold your character like facing adversity. What did you learn from a difficult 2005 season that helped you regain your form in 2006?
DE: It was a difficult year, and, you know, there were times when maybe it wasn’t that tough, and there were times, or things that happened, that might’ve been tougher than it seemed from outside. You know, the atmosphere in the garage can be very different from one week to the next. For the first part of that season, when we first started out and were trying to get our act together, it was a little easier to handle. It was easy to handle when we struggled a little bit. Getting the cars to turn, getting the cars to work, it was just a situation where you were so busy that, I don’t know, things didn’t pile up on you and it wasn’t something you dwelled on.
Then, though, it was hard to make the change as far as the crew chief was concerned. I really like Pete (Rondeau), and he and I haven’t talked since. It cost me a friendship. I don’t know, man. I hope I’ll talk to him again one of these days. I hope we can patch it up sometime down the road. Maybe he’ll get in a good situation where I’ll feel it was all for the better. It was tough and, then, even with Steve (Hmiel), we ran badly a few times and people were asking questions, but it was easy to defend and it didn’t really bother me. I was learning a lot. The experience was different. Running in the back and not having everything go your way was an experience that I got something good out of. Then we started having some good runs, and all those little problems that you see very easily on the surface, there’s a lot more under the surface. It’s kind of the iceberg theory. You couldn’t see all the little problems anymore, and the big problems became little problems, and everything was cool.
Then, when 2006 started, the biggest problem became the pressure, I suppose, as we saw our chance to make the Chase become a little more realistic. The pressure of that happening and trying to accomplish it started weighing on everybody. As the season went along, it raised expectations. You run every lap really, really hard. You’re exhausted when it’s over with. There’s all the testing, and it all gets magnified because you’re running better, and you’ve gotten back to where you’re one of the better teams, and now you want to take that extra step and really work hard to become, you know, the best. That comes with the territory. There was definitely this pressure — and it comes from both inside, from me and my crew, and outside, with expectations — that we hadn’t had the year before.
AS: No matter how hard you work, though, it still becomes a matter of doing the best you can, doesn’t it? One great week doesn’t necessarily mean anything the next. One week the car may be near-perfect, and the next, the team can’t get it to run. There’s no chance to relax, is there?
DE: You get your hopes up. You find yourself in the Chase for the Championship, and you know it’s a legitimate thing. The championship is out there, man, and it’s so close you can taste it. In 2005, there were a lot of times where, it would’ve been foolish to get your hopes up, but last year we had a legitimate shot. We had a reason to get our hopes up. You finish in the top five several times, and then you get a win (Richmond, Va., on May 6, 2006), and you finish top five at Darlington, and you start feeling like you’re really on a roll because, even when you finish back eighth or ninth, you see that it’s somewhat of an improvement.
But there are always frustrations. Everything’s going great, and then you get to the next track, where you’re 33rd in practice, and you go, ‘Thirty-third? What the hell’s wrong? At least we could be 15th or 20th, have some kind of hope.’ That’s when your maturity’s got to kick in, weeks like that. You’ve got to settle down, work with your crew and make the best of it. That’s as much a challenge, if not more so, than winning a race with a car that’s real strong.
AS: In general, you’re well-liked in the media, but you face greater demands on your time than most drivers simply because of your popularity and because there’s such a demand for interviews. Everywhere you go, there are photographers snapping your picture and a crush of people crowding in, even when you have other things on your mind and other duties you have to concentrate on. How do you cope with all that?
DE: I’ve got a lot better handle on that than I used to. I’m not going to go knock a camera out of somebody’s hands like some guys do. At the same time, I think about that a lot. I’ll be sitting in the car, feeling really frustrated, just grinding my teeth and agonizing over what we need to do, what we have to do. And there’s a guy sitting there, filming me. And I think to myself, man, why’s the guy filming me? I’m not going to run over there and knock the camera out of his hand, but I’m thinking, he’s sure as hell making a big deal out of everything. Remember that baseball player (Kenny Rogers), year before last, I think, who knocked down the cameraman? Coverage was, like, minute-by-minute. He went to court today, etc., etc., is he going to play, will he apologize, etc., etc.
The guy lost his temper. Everybody loses their temper. They need to drop it, but in a sense, he’s got to eventually understand that, until he chills out and quits giving them something to report, it won’t go away. If he keeps giving them what they want — there’s a guy in front of the courthouse filming him, and obviously he’s not filming him for any reason, he’s hoping he blows up again — there’s no reason why you’re filming that guy, because he’s not doing anything to film. Obviously you’re trying to get something out of the guy, and sure enough, he starts running his mouth. So the guys who are filming him, they end up getting what they wanted.
I was thinking about that. If you’re going to sit there and enjoy the popularity, you’ve got to enjoy the other side of it too when you’re not running good. It comes with the territory.
AS: Your friend Tony Stewart climbs the fence when he wins a race. Carl Edwards does back flips. Have you ever thought about coming up with some unique form of celebration that would set you apart?
DE: Nah, man, that’s not me. To each his own, but I want it to be spontaneous. I don’t want to be trapped into some kind of performance that would be expected. I mean, when Tony climbs the fence and mounts the flag stand, I think it’s cool. Only thing about it, he knows if he wins a race, he’s going to have to climb a fence. It’s like that back flip. I’d be worried that one day it’s not going to work, know what I mean?
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Throughout the course of history, people point to individual years, moments in time for professional sports that turn into living, breathing examples of the term “make-or-break.” As time sets in, the importance of these moments reaches a daunting crescendo, forever changing a sport’s course of direction for the better — or for the worse. In baseball, no one will forget the strike that devastated the game in 1994; in football, no one will ever forget the dawning of the Super Bowl era in 1967. These are moments through which heroes are born and villains appear, from which a sport either rises or self-destructs under the weight of its own decisions.
Welcome to the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, 2007.
On the eve of beginning a second brand-new, blockbuster television contract, America’s No. 1 sport on wheels finds itself at a crossroads perhaps bigger than the day after the Daytona 500 nearly six years ago, when a legend found his grave and NASCAR was born to a nation screaming for a sport filled with fan-friendly athletes their children could admire and competition enhanced with respect, not performance-enhancing substances. Dale Earnhardt’s death back in 2001 produced a NASCAR honeymoon the likes of which had never been seen before in its history; ratings doubled, drivers became national celebrities, and everyone remotely involved with the sport began raking in cash as if there were a national mint printing out money hidden behind turn four at every track.
That honeymoon period, for all intents and purposes, is now wearing off. Television ratings dipped in 2006 for the first time in a half-dozen years; cries of unfair enforcement of rules violations, illegally enhanced competition, and unfair preferential treatment towards certain teams dotted the landscape of criticism coming from all angles, questioning that only seemed to increase each week during a tumultuous season. From the Daytona 500, whose winner, Jimmie Johnson, saw his crew chief suspended for four weeks after rules violations, to the Chase for the Championship, in which the driver winning the most races wasn’t even competing for the title, it appeared NASCAR spent most of the year trying to explain what was going wrong rather than priding itself on what it did right. A sport that never before had to hold itself accountable on a national stage before this decade now seems to be struggling with the rising expectations that come with that type of popularity, all the while trying to keep old-time fans bent on tradition from leaving a sport that’s grown far beyond their level of satisfaction.
Now, in the aftermath of 2006 comes an even bigger challenge: 2007. As the NASCAR powers that be prepare for the future, they find themselves handling a tidal wave of change quickly approaching tsunami status. In examining the oncoming flood, they discover that each wave of change comes with its own level of importance, but all seem armed with a list of consequences that threaten to turn the sport sideways quicker than a last-lap Bristol bump-and-run. The debuts of Toyota and the Car of Tomorrow (COT), juggling a litany of new teams and potential qualifying nightmares, and reenergizing television coverage through a new broadcast partner present a mere fragment of potential roadblocks that, if not deftly avoided, could prove capable of stopping NASCAR’s growth in its tracks, sending it on a permanent detour not easily sidestepped.
“The voices of discontent are always louder than the voices of reason,” says Jeff Burton recently when asked about the constant criticism concerning the sport’s future. “Whatever the discontent is, whatever happens to be the subject, that’s going to be allowed a voice. The whole issue is never heard as much as the two or three people that say ‘The World is Falling, The Sky Is Falling, the World is Coming to an End.’”
That may be true, but there’s no denying that those voices continue to grow louder as the new season looms.
THE CAR OF TOMORROW
In perhaps the biggest change affecting the sport, a project several years in the making will finally come to fruition in March, with new cars making their debut at the Nextel Cup level that look nothing like their counterparts raced at Homestead this past November. In perhaps the biggest design change since NASCAR went from bigger, bulkier cars in the early 1980s to the sleeker models you see today, the Car of Tomorrow will make its debut in Bristol surrounded by a firestorm of controversy.
Led by Cup driver-owner-turned-engineer Brett Bodine, the car promises to cure several ills that have infected NASCAR over this decade: the dreaded aero push, safety concerns and poor side-by-side racing. The list of improvements is billed as massive: to help safety, there’s a larger, more centralized driver compartment for easy entry and exit. For the aero push, there’s a brand new front splitter, complete with an air dam rule that allows teams only a specific number of inches to move the car up or down. Of course, the biggest change perhaps, concerns the car’s rear end; in place of the traditional spoiler is a rear wing, with the sides attached to the back of the car and its top lifted several inches into the air.
The complete list of changes is too numerous to mention — and growing by the day. NASCAR has fallen far behind on finalizing both the dimensions of the COT and the inspection process; so much so, in fact, that even the biggest teams on the circuit have yet to get their cars approved. Kevin Harvick admitted that RCR planned to test every week from December straight through March just to feel content that the team is prepared enough for the initial inspection process. But several other teams are struggling simply to be ready to go out and test.
“We still only have just one car built right now,” quipped Tony Stewart when asked about Joe Gibbs Racing’s COT preparation in December. “So I don’t know what the plan is going to be. Maybe (teammate) Denny (Hamlin)’s going to drive, I’m going to ride shotgun, and J.J. (Yeley)’ll ride in the back seat, and we’ll switch every third of the race.”
Beyond the simplicity of having cars ready for the March debut, criticisms of the COT run deep. Perhaps the biggest is this: a driver’s ability to make a difference is becoming less and less important with a vehicle designed more to be like a common template IROC car than for teams to add their own personal touch.
“It used to be that the drivers were the engineers,” Mark Martin reminisced when asked about the COT. “They led the team and led the car to be good enough to win. Experience was at a premium. Now, the engineers make the cars. It’s gotten so technical that we (drivers) can’t help as much as we used to.”
The continued devaluation of veteran knowledge means that, more than ever, the COT will likely throw things into the hands of younger drivers capable of adapting quickly to new concepts and car setups. Still, Jeff Burton claims that in the end, the ability to make the new design work will wind up in the driver’s hands.
“There’s certainly going to be a change in how you have to approach the Car of Tomorrow races, there’s no question about that,” he theorized. “At the same token, the cars that will go around the corners fast are the cars that are going to run well. You can’t tell me that Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or that any of the Top 30 drivers can’t adapt to whatever the car is. That’s our job.”
One additional concern about the COT is simply its appearance. With the rear wing contributing to a futuristic, “space-age” type of design, it’ll be more difficult than ever to compare the Fords, Chevys, Toyotas and Dodges that run on the race track with the ones you drive on the street. Fans haven’t necessarily reacted with glee to the pictures they’ve seen on the Internet and fleeting glimpses of future models on the racetrack; drivers are also keenly aware of that fact.
“I’m somewhat disappointed with the way it looks,” says Tony Stewart when pressed on the issue. “I think it’s something that the SCCA (would use). It just looks like a road course car. At the road course races, it’s going to look really cool … but I think to go from what we’ve been driving to what we’re going to be driving is a pretty big change.”
“I believe it’s a possibility,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr. about the chance that the car design might alienate fans. “Everybody asks that question … it’s common conversation about the car. So it’s got to be a concern, you know?”
Of course, these concerns must be weighed with the simple fact that change is coming, like it or not; and, with any type of design implementation like this, there’s bound to be some growing pains.
“I think in the first half of the year it’s going to really separate the fields,” predicted Harvick. “Because there’s going to be some people that really miss the boat. Some of the teams are going to hit it, and somebody’s going to hit it at particular race tracks.”
“We’ll be ready (for January testing),” Burton said when pressed about the process. “The program is behind — for everybody. NASCAR’s behind. Everybody involved in it’s behind. It honestly needs another six months … but it’s here, and it will work out.
“It’s a huge challenge, it’s a huge undertaking for the teams. There’s a large learning curve we’ll all go through. But I’ve also said that if you gave all these teams Pintos, it’d be one hell of a race. And that’s what we’re going to see.”
TELEVISION CONTRACT: ESPN RETURNS
Ending a six-year, $400 million dollar television blockbuster contract after the 2006 season, NASCAR has merely continued to up the ante, signing an eight-year, reportedly $550 million dollar deal to partner with FOX, TNT, and ABC/ESPN beginning in 2007. The landmark signing marks ESPN’s return to NASCAR after a six-year absence; the network was deemed largely responsible for fueling the sport’s growth through its coverage in the 1980s and ’90s.
With FOX and TNT planning only minor changes to their approach next year, the focus of the new contract turns to ABC/ESPN, which now inherits the broadcast rights to the majority of Nextel Cup events, beginning with the Brickyard 400 in July, as well as the entire Busch Series season of 35 races. Longtime viewers expecting a return of ESPN’s old broadcast crew, though, are going to be in for an unpleasant surprise. Only Jerry Punch returns from the seven-member announcing team that broadcast their final race together in November of 2000; he’ll be joined in the booth by driver-turned-broadcaster Rusty Wallace and crew chief-turned-television rookie Andy Petree. On pit road, several of the faces are plucked from the former NBC broadcast crew, as Allen Bestwick and Dave Burns join newcomers Jamie Little and Mike Massaro from reporting the stories on pit road.
How these seven on-air personalities develop chemistry over the second half of 2007 will be something to watch, as well as the leeway NASCAR gives ESPN to develop ideas it feels will enhance the sport. Already, a major concept has been shot down. The popular “side-by-side” philosophy incorporated during IRL races, in which commercials were shown alongside race coverage, was proposed and encouraged by ESPN brass but turned down by NASCAR execs worried about the possible loss of revenue such a setup would create. That’s likely not the last idea ESPN will throw Daytona Beach’s way — and it’s not the last one they won’t accept, either.
Hugging the back bumper of the COT in the firestorm of changes affecting the sport, the debut of the Toyota Camry this February will mark the first major “foreign” competition within NASCAR during the modern era. “Foreign” is in quotes, of course, as many Toyotas are actually put together on the North American side of the ocean. Nevertheless, the branding of an American sport with a Japanese name has several traditionalist fans none too pleased. Aware of the potential pitfalls, the Toyota PR department has been working overtime since the announcement was made to calm fans’ fears about a hostile takeover with money and resources at their disposal that far outweigh traditional NASCAR powers Chevy, Ford and Dodge.
“Everything we have done, we have checked in advance with NASCAR,” says Toyota’s Jim Aust in an interview this spring. “We don’t want to be running in a direction that is opposed to what their ideas are, and how they want to run the series. We don’t want to come in and disrupt the organization in any way. There’s no value in that for us, since we’re looking to be in NASCAR for a long time.”
Still, it didn’t take long for the company to make a splash with cash, luring away Dale Jarrett from Robert Yates with a deal worth upwards of $20 million over two years. With all that money getting thrown around, the manufacturer likely won’t be happy with a poor early-season performance, but with the way the current qualifying system is set up, they’re likely to get one. Only two of the seven Toyota teams are guaranteed starting spots over the season’s first five races. Bill Davis’ No. 22 driven by Dave Blaney is the lone team to finish in the Top 35 in car owner points in 2006, locking down a qualifying spot; as for Jarrett, the 50-year-old finds himself the automatic beneficiary of the champion’s provisional driving Michael Waltrip’s Toyota, as he’s the most recent titlist not locked into the field for every race.
The other five wheelmen in the Toyota brigade will have to qualify on their own, facing a Daytona 500 entry list that’ll likely be upwards of two dozen cars competing for just seven “open spots” in the field. That’s opening a whole different can of worms, as longtime single-car team owners such as Morgan-McClure Motorsports and PPI will struggle to compete against the onslaught of newly sponsored Toyota outfits attempting to qualify each week. With over 50 full-time teams looking to attempt the full schedule, something or someone is going to fall, and fall hard; everyone from tiny Front Row Motorsports to Petty Enterprises is vulnerable to the inevitable collapse this environment will produce.
“It’s going to be a major problem for the sponsors,” says Jeff Burton about the possibility of a dozen DNQs each week. “The top 35 thing is great … we have to find a way to take it to the next step. But I disagree with just saying OK you’re a team owner, you’re in every race, you’re guaranteed that every time, no matter what. I think if you don’t do a certain amount of things (to remain competitive within the top 35), you completely lose the opportunity to compete.”
No matter what solution is reached, only one thing is certain: upwards of a half-dozen teams and drivers may lose their financial ability to compete full-time by the time the 2007 season is complete.
OTHER SEEDS OF CHANGE
Needless to say, these are only three of a myriad of big issues heading into next year. There have been reports the Chase for the Championship will be tinkered with, but any adjustments will supposedly be minor; a rumor involving adding 10 points for the race winner could be in place by the end of January. While the Chase still doesn’t make everyone warm and fuzzy inside, with some claiming it doesn’t promote enough aggressiveness, most drivers are on board with promoting only minor changes to a system that’s produced championship battles that went down to the final race in each of its first three years.
“I could care less, really, what they do and what they change,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I think what we had is awesome … if they want to try to improve it, I’m fine with that.”
“Remember, this isn’t a win or lose game like football or basketball,” says Burton. “It’s a major difference. When you finish second in a football game, you lost; when you finish second in a NASCAR race, you didn’t lose. The guy that ran 43rd lost, so the points system has to show that as well.”
Showcasing the degree of respect NASCAR has gained across the globe, an influx of open wheel drivers continues to pour into the sport, headlined next season by Formula 1 defector and former CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya, on hand to run for Rookie of the Year with car owner Chip Ganassi. Capable of luring in the Hispanic audience NASCAR has long coveted, the Colombian will be thrown under the microscope, making an already-difficult transition that much more daunting.
“I mean, he’s fast, he can go fast, he’s proved that to me already,” Jeff Gordon says about Montoya. “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for him. I think it’s racing in these tight quarters, learning how to use your mirror a lot more than ever before, and listening to your spotter, getting used to hearing somebody talk to you that much and having to pay attention to what they’re saying (that’s important).”
So far, Montoya needs to take heed of that advice; in his Cup debut at Homestead, he tangled with teammate Casey Mears, then got involved in a tit-for-tat incident with Ryan Newman that ended with his car up in flames after being punted into the turn one wall. A similar kind of incident at Daytona or Talladega would take out half the field, turning NASCAR ballets into demolition derbies of the highest caliber.
Among Montoya’s open wheel cohorts entering the series in 2007 is champ car vet A.J. Allmendinger, with a part-time Busch Series effort being started by reigning IRL champ Sam Hornish, Jr. Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier are among those rumored to be considering a full-time switch over the next year or two. All of them lack stock car experience, making an easy transition out of the question; Allmendinger has already DNQ’d for a Nextel Cup event, and Hornish hit the wall in both of his two career Busch starts.
Of course, all those drivers will be battling to tread water in the choppy waters of the NASCAR world that have been increasingly difficult to navigate. With the winds of change reaching a screeching howl, there’s so much going on, it’s enough to make any driver’s head spin.
“You think about what’s going on next year,” says Burton. “We have the cars we’re running today that we’ve got to make better. We’ve got the Car of Tomorrow we’re still developing. Chevy’s coming out with a new package. I mean, there’s a lot.”
As for the sport itself, preparation has turned to wary anticipation, criticism reaching its peak on the eve of a revolutionary storm that will forever alter the landscape of everything it touches. The eye of that hurricane looms just offshore; the sky, once blue, has turned ominous, as the wind picks up like voices screaming into their heads. Undaunted, NASCAR aficionados stay the course, preparing for the worst while hoping forecasts are wrong and that the whole thing will just blow over. Appearing ready and willing to handle what comes their way, they claim they’re fully prepared to ride out the storm ahead.
In this year of change, they’ll need every bit of preparation they can get.
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In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Kevin Harvick broke Richard Childress Racing’s victory drought with a win in the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2005, but for the second straight year the team found itself shut out of the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Harvick, driving the No. 29 Chevrolet sponsored by GM Goodwrench, was seventh in the standings in mid-June, but he finished better than 10th only twice the rest of the season and wound up a disappointing 14th in the final standings, a repeat of 2004.
The brash Harvick came to Cup racing abruptly, stepping in for the second race of the 2001 season after Dale Earnhardt’s death in a crash in the Daytona 500. He has now completed five years in the Cup Series and has five career victories on his résumé. In addition, he won four Busch Series races in Childress-owned cars in 2005 — bringing his career total to 17 Busch wins — and he also saw Tony Stewart win in the Busch series and Ron Hornaday win in the Truck series in entries owned by Kevin Harvick, Inc.
Harvick, who celebrated his 30th birthday in December, was fifth in the final Cup standings in 2003. Obviously, he’d like to be back up there again in ’06 to earn a spot in the Chase and, he hopes, contend for a title. Can that happen? Well, we went right to the source — a one-on-one interview between Harvick and veteran motorsports writer David Poole. Here are highlights of that conversation:
You’ve been doing this for five years now. How have you seen things change? What things in the sport are heading in the right direction, and where do there need to be some course corrections?
I think the one area that’s probably the hardest for everybody to anticipate and the thing that scares everybody the most is the cost. It goes up quite a bit every year, so I mean it’s just a matter of where does that end and when do things become predictable on what you’re going to have to spend. The good thing about everything that’s going on is that the fan base continues to grow. People enjoy watching what we’re doing. That’s the most exciting part.
There have been times when you’ve been frustrated by how things have gone with your current team, and at times you’ve been vocal about the need for things to change. Are you optimistic for the long term about where Richard Childress Racing is going?
I think you have to be. Richard has made a lot of changes to make things go in the right direction. We shot ourselves in the foot multiple times last year, and that’s the hardest thing to swallow. We had really competitive cars, but we made a lot of mistakes. Competitively, I am not too disappointed. It’s just about minimizing those mistakes for us at the 29 team.
Now that you’re a car owner, you have to keep your eye out for talent in the sport. Who are a couple of guys who the fans might not yet fully grasp how good they are? Who’s underrated?
I think Tony Raines is going to get his shot with the Hall of Fame Racing team, a chance to prove himself. I think if you go look at somebody like a David Green, who never really got the right opportunity in Cup — there are a handful of guys in the Busch and Truck series that never got that good shot at what they wanted to do. Guys like Mike Garvey or Butch Miller, who never really got the ultimate opportunity that a lot of the guys in the garage did get.
Sometimes frustration over not performing as well as you might expect to can come out in a way that seems like a driver doesn’t appreciate what he’s got when it’s likely that the opposite is true. A driver knows he’s only going to have so many opportunities to succeed, and it’s awfully annoying not to seize them.
Being a competitor, liking what you do and wanting to win, you’re trying to do all of the things we’re here to do and that’s to win races and championships and finish as well as we can every week. When you don’t do those things, whether you’ve screwed up in the driver’s seat or wherever, it is frustrating not to capitalize on those moments and get everything out of them. Sometimes you show those frustrations in different ways from other people. Some people here don’t really care about whether they win or lose. The day I fall into that category is the day I will just quit.
Has being a car owner helped give you a bigger picture of the sport?
Oh yes. It has helped me to understand a lot of things. But there are some things that it has driven the nail home harder and made it worse. All in all, though, it has helped me understand — whether it’s maneuvering people or spending the money, whatever, it makes you understand where Richard is coming from on a lot of things.
Someone once asked Darrell Waltrip what’s the first thing he’d ask for if somebody made him “King of NASCAR” for a day. Waltrip said, “More time.” If somebody gave you the reins for a day, where would you begin?
I think we’d race twice at fewer tracks than we do now. We’d spread it out more across places where the fans like to go. Some of the places that have been here for a long time and have been around the sport deserve two races. But that’s where I’d start. I don’t know that I would be one of those people who wouldn’t add more races. There are more markets we can go to. Everything is there, and maybe trying to mix it up with a Saturday race and then like a Wednesday race to try to do something a little different as far as the scheduling goes. Once we all get going we’re all are on the road all the time anyway. If we raced on Saturday and Wednesday we could pack more races together and maybe have more time off at the end of the year.
NASCAR is trying a lot of things on the competition side, looking at the “car of tomorrow” and things like that. How critical are those projects?
The hardest thing to compare to 10 or 20 years ago is that there are so many good cars and so little tolerance. Look at the fields. All of the cars are separated by less than a second now after qualifying, and it used to be more like three or four seconds. I watched a Bristol race on TV the other day from several years ago and there were five cars on the lead lap. Who knows if we would have had the same problems then that we’re having now with things like the “aero push” because all of those cars weren’t racing together. It’s hard to compare apples to oranges.
There are so many good teams now, everything is so close and you’re in such a small box, it’s hard to pass anybody. Everybody has good people now, because there are just more good people in the sport now. You hear people talking about how great the racing is in the Truck Series or the Busch Series. What makes that racing good is that people in those races make mistakes. You have a set amount of tires to race on and people can’t put tires on every time they come in. The fields get mixed up. And then the crews make mistakes and the drivers make mistakes and that mixes the field up. When you get to Cup races, though, you’ve got the best of the best and everything doesn’t get stirred up. So it doesn’t seem like there’s as much going on because everybody runs well.
When there’s a rain delay at the track, the networks can’t get a camera to your motor home fast enough, and you always have fun with those guys. As his retirement approached last year, Rusty Wallace said one thing he’s noticed in recent years is that some drivers don’t get the fact that entertaining people is part of this job. You seem to understand and enjoy that aspect of it. True?
You have to have a personality. You have to at least express who you are and have fun with it. You have to be somewhat entertaining to watch. We are part of the show. We still have our jobs to do and we’re out here to race. But we have to entertain the fans, too. We do have some guys in this garage who’ve won races, but nobody really cares about them because they’re sticks in the mud.
Is 2006 a particularly important year for you?
Well, I think every year is important. We have a lot of things that are coming to a head, and there are a lot of things we wanted to do in 2005 and in 2004 that we had done in years before. I am going to run more Busch races, and I think that will be good, because I like being in the car and at the track.
It’s all about putting all of the elements together, isn’t it?
You can have fast cars and you can have everything going your way. All it takes is one instant to ruin it. Somebody’s going to have a perfect day. If you’re off a second on pit road, these days that’s a long way on the track. A lot of things can go wrong and you have to have them all right to win. When nobody’s car is dominant, it’s harder and harder to recover from any mistake you make. So you just can’t afford to make any.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. What was the reasoning behind the crew and car swap at DEI?
Spokesmen for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. would have you believe it was based on performance. By giving Michael Waltrip the 8 team’s crew and fleet of cars, it was a show of support by DEI. They were telling him, “We’re giving you the best we’ve got, now go win.”
Well, in a sense it was.
We were also told of the strained relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his cousin/car chief, Tony Eury Jr.
At least that one holds some merit.
When decisions are made for reasons other than winning trophies, good things rarely happen. DEI management, led by Teresa Earnhardt, made a decision based on financial concerns. Waltrip’s sponsor, NAPA, felt the DEI effort focused on the Budweiser team and the company’s championship-contending driver.
The now-infamous team swap was made to show NAPA it was the driver, not the equipment, that was causing the disparity between the teams. When Waltrip inherited a fleet of championship-material cars and could not win — even though the chemistry was never there with Eury Jr. — DEI was able to point to this fact.
The move backfired when Junior could not get Waltrip’s old fleet up to speed. Chemistry with his new crew chief, Pete Rondeau, never developed either. In essence, the cure was the poison. The end result was that two teams suffered from one of the worst management decisions in NASCAR’s modern era.
2. What is the future management team of NASCAR?
Many insiders say it’s a done deal. Others say there is nothing to the rumor swirling around current NASCAR CEO Brian France. What’s the rumor? That France is considering a jump into NFL franchise ownership.
Brian France took over day-to-day leadership duties from his semi-retired father, Bill France Jr., in September 2003. In no time, he shook up the status quo. Changes included a new points format, cutting and slicing of the schedule (dubbed Realignment 2004 and Beyond), welcoming in Nextel as only the second title sponsor of the premier series and lifting his father’s ban on hard liquor sponsorship in the sport. He was also the lead negotiator for both TV contracts. In short, he has been the driving force behind NASCAR’s push to rival the other four major sporting leagues.
However, rumors of his departure have surrounded France since the ban on liquor was lifted for the 2005 season. The NFL talk surfaced after Magic Johnson said he had talked to him about owning a professional sports team.
When Brian France opened the door to liquor sponsorships, a split appeared between Brian and his sister, Lesa France Kennedy, and Jim France (brother to Bill Jr.). If Brian were to leave, it is believed that the keys to the shop would go to Lesa, who is currently the President of International Speedway Corporation.
So what does the future hold? We see Brian moving on to the NFL or some other professional sports league, thereby handing the reins to Lesa. She is regarded as the future of the management team and will be welcomed in the garage area.
3. What’s the story behind Bobby Labonte leaving Joe Gibbs Racing?
Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck Series racing are divided into two camps: Stock car racers who cut their teeth on pavement, and open wheel dirt track racers. These two types of drivers usually have completely different driving styles, requiring different chassis set-ups. They are used to a car feeling a certain way, regardless of whether it’s a stock or open wheel, and that’s the way they prefer it.
As Tony Stewart emerged as the top performer at Joe Gibbs Racing, the technology, testing and engineering drifted away from Labonte’s traditional stock car setup and morphed into a Stewart-style, open wheel method. A tug-of-war ensued, and Stewart won.
At times, Labonte was not privy to the setups under his own car. He was told to learn how to drive what was given to him instead of setting up the car to fit his driving style. Labonte finally had his fill and asked for a release from the team that took him to the 2000 championship.
This was a development that had been brewing, and when it finally boiled over, Labonte was ready to jump ship, even if that meant going to an organization that has not won a race since 1999.
4. Do car sponsors that spend money on television advertising get more exposure on race broadcasts?
Yes, and it’s just short of extortion. One of the sport’s dirty little secrets is that race and team sponsors have to pay to get coverage from the television networks.
Broadcast directors can, and do, control which cars and drivers get more face time. There has even been an ‘FOF’ list made for the TV crews to follow during races. What is ‘FOF’? That stands for ‘Friends of FOX.’ The FOF list alerts the production crew who has paid for advertising and, more important, who has not.
Take a pen and paper and log the commercials that air during a race. Then, log the driver features, interviews and airtime for each team/driver. You should see a connection.
Compare this to teams and drivers that do not advertise, and the game becomes clear. This is not a coincidence. And it is not a new development. It started at the very first race of the network TV package.
If you recall the 2001 Bud Shootout, FOX ran starting lineup graphics of each driver and car during driver introductions. Many cars appeared without their sponsor logo(s). Only the cars that had paying television advertisers were shown in full regalia. Also of note that day, the announcers never referred to a sponsor who was not running ad space. For example, Rusty Wallace was not referred to as driving the Miller Lite Dodge, rather the blue No. 2.
Of course, turmoil ensued, as sponsors who were not running TV ads cried foul. NASCAR claimed to have no prior knowledge of the tactic, and FOX eventually relented for the running of the 500 the next weekend.
In short, the networks have a racket. They overpaid for the television rights and are attempting to make it up on the backs of the sponsors that keep the sport alive.
5. Does Shane Hmiel deserve a third shot in NASCAR after failing two drug tests?
Ask Brian Rose. The young and talented driver from Bowling Green, Ky., was just starting to make a name for himself in the Craftsman Truck Series when he was suspended indefinitely in April 2003 after failing a drug test. Today he is less visible than Jimmy Hoffa. He threw away his chances and was blackballed from the sport.
Shane Hmiel is another story. He failed his second drug test last year and has been on an indefinite suspension since. His family has been involved in the sport for years; his father, Steve, has served in the DEI and Roush organizations, among others, in various capacities.
While we do not believe Hmiel received special treatment, it is reasonable to assume that his last name got him chance number two.
But the question remains: Should there be a third opportunity for the young man?
We say no. NASCAR has a chance to step up and make the statement that Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA have all failed to make: ‘No matter who you are, this type of behavior will not be tolerated. Period.’ Unfortunately, it is time for Hmiel to leave the sport for the safety of the drivers and crew members.
Rusty Wallace said it best in the drivers’ meeting at Homestead: “Driving race cars is a privilege.” If a driver fails to recognize that fact, he should find another field that tolerates his habits.
6. Is driver/crew chief chemistry overrated?
You hear it on broadcasts all the time. Even throughout this magazine. Everyone talks up team chemistry, especially between a driver and his crew chief. Is it all it’s made out be, or is it simply a sexy term that is easy to throw around?
Start by asking Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne. Right out of the box, they hit on a combination. Granted, both are wildly talented, but would either have been as good with other mates? The answer is no.
The dynamic duos of today come in two different categories: learning together and teacher-student.
The aforementioned DEI experiment took chemistry and wrecked it. The driver swap did not work largely because the new teams never found the right chemistry. Neither Michael Waltrip nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. could perform up to the standards of the previous year when each driver was more familiar and comfortable with his crew chief.
A driver must be able to relay information to the crew, and the crew must be able to speak his language to adapt to the changing conditions. Sometimes it is simply the tone of a voice, or a term a driver uses. Ryan Newman has described his car as having too much yaw. While most would scratch their heads at a term like ‘yaw’ when applied to a stock car, Newman’s and crew chief Matt Borland’s engineering backgrounds tell them that the car had too much side-to-side movement. A perfect example of driver/crew chief chemistry.
Once said chemistry is lost, it takes a long time to find it with another. Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon had won three of four Winston Cup titles when Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports. It took Gordon going through one crew chief before finally settling on Robbie Loomis before he won another in 2001.
Harry Hyde was known as Tim Richmond’s mentor in the 1980s. The movie Days of Thunder was loosely based on the story of how Hyde taught the hardheaded Richmond how to race in the series.
Today’s best example of a teacher-student relationship may be the Jimmy Fennig/Kurt Busch partnership. Though they would seem to be polar opposites, Fennig’s guiding hand led a raw but talented Busch to a 2004 title.
For first-hand proof of whether chemistry is key, observe both Fennig and Busch this season, as each will be paired with new partners.
7. What happened to the DuPont team in 2005?
Jeff Gordon’s streak of 11 consecutive top 10 points finishes ended last year. The 2005 season started out as planned with three wins in the first nine races, including the Daytona 500, but it went south from there.
The problems surfaced with poor performances on the cookie-cutter tracks through the summer. The DuPont team could not find the aero balance needed to compete on the intermediate tracks. To make matters more frustrating, Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was excelling.
The underlying issue was not with Gordon, but with crew chief Robbie Loomis. The grueling work and travel schedule took their toll on Loomis as he dealt with the health care of his mother. With Loomis stretched too thin, the DuPont crew lost its edge.
It soon became apparent that Loomis needed to pull back on the travel and day-to-day duties that consumed the majority of his time. To his credit, Loomis put his family first and stepped down as the crew chief on the 24. Although results were slow in coming with new chief Steve Letarte, they did surface eventually, as evidenced by the team’s stellar run in the season’s last five events.
Loomis joins Petty Enterprises in 2006 in a managerial role that will reduce his travel schedule.
8. Can Jimmie Johnson and the Lowe’s team win a Championship?
Team Lowe’s has climbed the championship mountain three straight years, only to find that someone has beaten it to the summit each time.
Johnson’s performance over that time has been exceptional. He has recorded 15 wins and, most telling of all, has led the point standings after 25 of the last 58 races.
Winning four of the last six races in 2004 showed that this team can never be counted out, even when the odds are all but impossible to overcome. However, confidence has to be shaken after three straight years of coming close. Rumors have flown during the offseason that defections from the team, including crew chief Chad Knaus, were imminent. While these rumors are just that, one wonders whether doubt is creeping into the 48 camp.
All this aside, we believe the Lowe’s team will be back and as strong as ever in 2006. The Hendrick organization is solid and built to last. JJ will get his Cup. It’s only a matter of when.
For inspiration, the team needs only to look to Bobby Allison, who played the role of bridesmaid five times before finally earning his title.
9. Can the Busch Series survive without the Buschwhackers?
Cup drivers who participate in Busch Series events have drawn fire over the past several years. The knock is that the more experienced Cuppers hold an unfair advantage over the Busch drivers who are trying to cut their teeth in the world of big-time auto racing.
As with any issue, this one boils down to money. Track operators are put in a tough position. While Cup participants sell tickets, they are also running the Busch teams out of business.
By winning the majority of the purses, the powerhouse Cup organizations are elbowing out the fledgling Busch teams while also using the Busch races as test sessions for Sunday’s Cup event.
In looking at 2005, when a Busch race was a companion event to a Nextel Cup race, the Cup drivers won 22 of the 27 events. Of the Busch winners, Martin Truex Jr., out of the DEI stable, won five times. Only two full-time Busch drivers with no Cup ties won races: Johnny Sauter won in Milwaukee and David Green won Pikes Peak.
If this trend continues, the Busch Series will fold, which will adversely affect the sport and ruin a great training ground for future drivers.
This is a critical issue that must be addressed soon, as the security of the sport is at stake.
10. What is wrong with Richard Childress Racing?
Richard Childress’ three-car stable has failed to make the Chase for the Championship since its inception. Since losing Dale Earnhardt in 2001, this team has employed eight full-time pilots but has not found the right combination of driver, crew chief and crew.
When Dale Earnhardt drove the 3 car, the RCR bunch only had to build a car that was close to a winner and Earnhardt would do the rest. He could win with a third-place car by using his experience, talent and savvy.
In 2001, Childress put Kevin Harvick in the seat of the Goodwrench Chevy. With the Earnhardt setups, he was a front-runner on most weekends. However, after that first year, the operation fell off and has not been a consistent threat since.
While the revolving door of drivers has not helped, the technology and aerodynamic aspects cannot be overlooked. With Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports on the cutting edge of the sport, the RCR operation has simply tried to keep up.
Until the right drivers are paired with the right crew chief, the slide will continue. Harvick’s split with the team is rumored for 2007, when he may be heading to the Toyota camp. A new season brings new hope, as rookie Clint Bowyer may be the young hotshoe Childress is looking for who can lead the team into the future. However, if the company cannot catch up in the aero and technology departments, it may not matter.
11. Are there too many events on the Nextel Cup schedule?
This depends on who is asked. The drivers, vendors, NASCAR officials and crew members will all reply with a stern, “Yes.” Time away from home is cited as the No. 1 drawback to the NASCAR lifestyle.
Assuming that all the drivers and teams are based in the Charlotte area, meaning that the three Lowe’s events don’t count as travel weekends, the circuit is on the road 36 weekends per year (including Preseason Thunder at Daytona in January). From the Feb. 11th Bud Shootout to the Nov. 19th Ford 400 in Homestead, the series is on the road each weekend except for three. That leaves the participants with 16 race-free weekends. However, throw in sponsor appearances/obligations, and that number dips even further.
Last season, Rusty Wallace stated that if the season were only 30 races long, he would continue driving in the Nextel Cup Series. Let’s take a look at that idea. How could we whittle away at the 36 weekends drivers are currently on tour?
Six event weekends must be dropped, so let’s start by taking away one of the two longest and most boring events; therefore, race No. 14 at Pocono loses a date. Next, we eliminate weekends No. 16 and 22, the road courses. Yes, they have their merit, but we have to get rid of weekends somehow. Would you rather we eliminate Bristol?
From here on, we take dates only from tracks that have two races. The folks in Texas whined for two or three years about deserving two dates. Once they were given them, they failed to sell out. So, there goes our fourth date.
We never understood why the Chase started at Loudon, so New Hampshire, you lose weekend No. 27. The last one is tough, but Michigan — you’re next. There goes the sixth date. We’re down to 30 races, with nine off-weekends spread throughout the season.
Of course the other side of the argument is that racing, like most commodities, is a supply and demand issue. The planned expansion to the northwest, New York City and other rumored markets shows no signs of letting up. Whether these planned venues would replace existing dates or open new ones can only be answered by the brass in Daytona Beach. And we have a feeling even they don’t know yet.
We believe racing would improve with fewer races, less testing and less time away from home. The overall quality of the product would increase, while the demand would go up with less supply.
The people who count — the drivers, owners, crew and support staff — would love to cut the number, and their families would vote the same. The 36-race schedule has cost us Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, and soon, Mark Martin. These guys are still top-of-the-line competitors and are an asset to the sport. Let’s hope something is done about the grueling schedule before we lose drivers like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon to burnout.
12. How many chances should a driver get at the Cup level?
The 2005 season saw the dismissal of Jason Leffler from the FedEx team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Leffler joins Mike Bliss, Dave Blaney and Mike Wallace as drivers who have had multiple opportunities in the Nextel Cup Series without scoring a win.
Leffler’s run with Joe Gibbs was his third opportunity, as he was dismissed from his Ganassi ride after 30 races in 2001. He got a ride with Gene Haas for 11 events in 2003 and ’04. Which led to last season, when he lasted with the Gibbs operation for only 19 races.
Dave Blaney’s résumé included rides with Bill Davis and the Jasper team before landing with Richard Childress in ’05. After losing that ride, he is returning to Bill Davis for another shot in the No. 22 Caterpillar Dodge.
Mike Wallace lost his ride to Scott Wimmer in the Morgan McClure Chevy this past season; both are recycled drivers.
It has been said, “Why not take a chance on a driver who might get it done instead of a driver you know has never succeeded?” Each time a driver succeeds in his first attempt, the sledding gets tougher for the retreads. The immediate success of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin is cutting into the odds of re-scoring rides.
Our opinion: Give the up-and-comers a crack at the show. Sure, many will try and fail, but that is the nature of the business. The simple fact is that not everyone is cut out to handle auto racing at this level. As teams look for those diamonds in the rough, our hope is that we will see an increase in drivers like Edwards or Busch. Not only will this spread the opportunities around, but it will also give struggling organizations a better shot at finding the next Big Thing.
13. Would Kurt Busch have been suspended if he were running for a Nextel Cup Championship?
To put it simply, there is not a snowball’s chance in Daytona. The well-publicized and over-reported police incident involving Kurt Busch at Phoenix leads to a tough question for everyone involved.
If the incident had taken place in 2004 while Busch was in the thick of the championship race, as opposed to being a lame duck driver at an organization he was leaving, there is no way Jack Roush would have cut ties.
Roush saw the opportunity to get some payback for the six years of documented arrogance and half-season of contract squabbles. Very little was on the line, so the decision to pull the trigger was an easy one.
Again, this issue comes down to dollars and cents. Roush could plug in a substitute driver and still earn his share of the purses. But to risk a championship? Never. There is just too much money on the line. Had the police incident occurred with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth or Carl Edwards, they would have received the proverbial slap on the wrist.
Which brings us to a bonus question:
Can Kurt Busch make amends with the fans?
A dramatic moment in Busch’s career was his win in the 2003 Sharpie 500 at Bristol. His primary sponsor was also sponsoring the event. After winning the race to the delight of the Sharpie VIP’s in attendance, Busch pulled in to Victory Lane to a chorus of boos. Needless to say, the smiles on the faces of the VIP’s turned south.
Of course, this all stemmed from his incident with Jimmy Spencer the prior weekend at Michigan when the two feuded on track and off. Busch walked away with a busted nose, and Spencer walked straight into a one-race suspension. Mr. Excitement is always a fan favorite at Bristol, where his driving style meshes well with a half-mile short track. Subsequently, Spencer’s popularity soared while Busch’s plummeted.
The answer to the question is yes, Kurt Busch can gain back the respect of the fans. We’ve seen Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace all vilified for their colorful behavior. Fans love to hate a driver as much as they love to pull for one. If Busch would go to men like Waltrip or Wallace to receive some mentoring, he could straighten up and fly right.
We hope this happens. Busch is an amazing talent who could be one of the better drivers of his generation. Time heals all wounds. Let’s hope this comes to pass with Busch.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
It was called, according to the T-shirts the crew working NASCAR for ESPN2’s RPM 2Night show in 2001 had made up after that season in exile, “The Outside Looking In Tour.”
The back of the shirt listed the glamorous venues from which they were forced to do their jobs that season. Places like “Halifax Marina/Pep Boys Rooftop, Daytona Beach, Fla.,” “Diamond Hill & Co. Plywood, Darlington, S.C.” and various race track helipads including “Snake Pit Helipad” in Phoenix. In that first season of NASCAR’s first consolidated television deal, the pain from the divorce between stock-car racing and the cable sports network that had grown with it was still fresh. The bitterness was still real. NASCAR fans could not believe ESPN had been jilted.
While Winston Cup races had been spread out across the dial before 2001, it was ESPN that had most completely embraced the sport. And now, ESPN was on the outside looking in while Fox and NBC were doing Cup races?
NASCAR officials could not believe ESPN hadn’t come to the bargaining table with a bid for the rights that came close to what the sport was looking for out of the deal. If the whole point of getting tracks to agree to sell the rights in one package was to get a fair market value for the growing sport’s television rights, NASCAR couldn’t very well choose a sense of loyalty over significantly higher bids.
So when the 2001 season began, with Fox airing the ill-fated Daytona 500 in which Dale Earnhardt died, NASCAR opted to shut ESPN out by saying that RPM 2Night, a daily show that covered the sport, was a “magazine” show and not a news show. Under the terms of the new contract, magazine shows could not shoot footage inside the track during race weekends. So drivers who wanted to continue talking to ESPN’s reporters had to be shuttled in and out of the track in golf carts, or stop off at helipads on their way home from races.
That’s why it seemed so significant in February 2005 to see ESPN’s SportsCenter, the nightly gathering place for American sports fans, back with such prominence for Speedweeks. There was a set overlooking the track’s victory circle, just as there had been back in the days before the breakup. With negotiations of a new television contract looming near season’s end, the timing could hardly have been more obvious. And the conclusion everyone jumped to in February became a reality in December when the new eight-year contract worth $4.48 billion was finalized.
Beginning in 2007, ESPN, along with its corporate sister in the Disney empire, ABC, will be back in the stock car racing business. While the enormous price tag on the new deal got most of the immediate headlines, the biggest impact of NASCAR’s second major broadcasting contract may very well wind up being just how that deal positions the sport to continue the growth that ESPN helped spark in the mid-1980s and fueled throughout the 1990s with its expanding coverage of the sport. And make no mistake about it, having NASCAR races on ESPN will absolutely change how the sport is treated all the way across the networks’ vast array of programming, promotional and other commercial platforms.
“It’s an understatement to say that we’re delighted to rekindle our relationship with NASCAR,” says George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, which not only get the season’s final 17 Nextel Cup races each year through 2014, but also will become the full-season home for the NASCAR Busch Series. ABC/ESPN will have 52 races and plans more than 400 hours of NASCAR programming annually.
“To all the NASCAR officials, all the owners, all the drivers,” Bodenheimer says, “and most importantly to all the NASCAR fans, the millions of them out there, we say, ‘Welcome home.’”
ABC will broadcast all 10 of each year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup races, making NASCAR the centerpiece of its Sunday sports programming each fall while Fox, CBS and, beginning in 2006, NBC, will be serving up the NFL.
“In our minds, NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup is an absolute crown jewel in the sports world and a major asset for our company overall and ABC Sports in particular,” Bodenheimer says. “As for the Busch Series, we really feel like it’s the jewel in the rough. I really look at this deal as another in a series of agreements with new media rights that fuel all of our platforms. In fact, we have 18 different businesses that will enjoy NASCAR products and help fuel their growth.”
What makes the story about a television deal that doesn’t even begin until 2007 relevant for this year, in fact, is that array of businesses connected to ESPN that will begin ramping up for the sport’s return throughout the course of this season.
ESPN Radio, ESPN the Magazine, the network’s products for mobile phones and other data delivery devices that are just being rolled out, all will be part of where NASCAR goes.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are to get the resources of the Disney Company,” NASCAR chairman Brian France says. “All of the Chase events will be live on ABC. It will be a tremendous franchise for them and for us. We’re excited about that.”
ESPN’s first actual NASCAR race broadcasts since the end of the 2000 season will come in the Busch Series races beginning at Daytona next year. Its first Nextel Cup race in the new deal won’t be until late July in the season’s 20th race — Pocono — if the schedule for 2007 stays the same as it is in 2006.
Nextel Cup’s new television calendar will look like the following a year from now:
Fox will have the Daytona 500 and the next 12 Cup races of each season.
Fox and NBC alternated showing the Daytona 500 in the six-year contract that expires after this season, so NBC will have its final shot at the circuit’s biggest race — at least for now — this year. Fox also has the Bud Shootout at Daytona and will broadcast two Craftsman Truck Series races each year.
Speed Channel, which is part of the Fox corporate family, will continue to air the remainder of the Truck Series schedule as well as extensive ancillary programming — practice, qualifying and pre-race shows — on NASCAR weekends. It picks up the Gatorade Duels at Daytona, the 150-mile races that set the field for the Daytona 500, along with the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge and activities surrounding that event.
TNT, which shares the second half of the season with NBC in the current deal, will strike out on its own to air six Cup races each year, beginning with the season’s 14th race. The centerpiece of its package will be the Pepsi 400 from Daytona on July 4th weekend.
ESPN/ABC takes over after TNT’s six races and completes the Cup season.
ABC will likely do the Allstate 400 from Indianapolis and the 10 Chase races each year, with ESPN carrying the other six in that corporate family’s 17-race Cup inventory.
NASCAR loves how Fox has promoted its racing coverage in recent years, especially when that network has had the Daytona 500. For months prior to the 2005 season, Fox ran promos touting the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 as signature events on largely equal terms — something NASCAR would only have dared to dream about just a few years ago.
Speed Channel provides Fox with the perfect cable partner to cater to fans who can’t get enough coverage from the track, and the new contract will require that its shows promote live race coverage even when it’s on cable rivals TNT or ESPN or on ABC as well as Fox.
It was important for TNT to be part of NASCAR’s television future for several reasons. One, simply, is longevity. By the end of the new contract, Turner Sports, through TBS or TNT, will have been airing live NASCAR events for more than three decades. But second, and more important, TNT is part of AOL/Time Warner, a media giant with which NASCAR also does extensive business in the Internet arena. Rather than go back and start over with new partners on popular services available to online subscribers, having AOL/Time Warner back in the fold sustains the current relationship.
Financially, the stakes are big. ESPN and ABC will pay about $270 million per year in the new contract. Fox and Speed Channel are paying around $205 million, while TNT is paying $80 million.
That annual figure of $555 million represents about a 40 percent increase in the $400 million average per year in the current deal. Because the current contract increased each year from 2001, however, NASCAR may actually get less television rights money in 2007 than it gets this year as the “old” contract finishes up at around $570 million.
NBC elected not to continue in the negotiations for the new deal after losing money the first go-round.
There’s much debate within the television industry whether sports rights contracts should be expected to be profitable in and of themselves — the argument being that not having attractive sports events hurts a network more on the bottom line than the money that might be lost in acquiring them. The executives involved in the new deal, predictably, sound convinced that they can make it all work out just fine.
“When we started (in 2001), we felt that NASCAR was an important product,” says Ed Goren, Fox Sports president. “But the reality is, it took a couple years for Madison Avenue to buy into that.
“Over the last five years, our regular-season ratings have grown by 20 percent. We just came off our highest-rated season ever, averaging a 6.0 rating. You look at the Daytona 500, we didn’t sell out that first year of the Daytona 500, yet over the last five years the Daytona 500 has averaged a 10.5. In ’05, we had 35 million viewers. It was seen in more homes than any NASCAR race in history.
“I think it’s just taken a while for Madison Avenue to catch up with what we all believed in five years ago. I think we’re starting (the new deal) from a much different base.”
David Levy, Turner Sports president, agrees.
“NASCAR has come a long, long way over the last couple years,” he says. “What we’ve seen is we’ve not seen the typical NASCAR advertiser, meaning the ones that are sponsoring the cars, but we’ve also seen a cross-section of a whole bunch of new advertisers that have come on board in support of this event.
“It has become mainstream, if you will, from an advertiser’s perspective. But the key here is there’s still a tremendous amount of growth. I think there’s still a lot of growth in the ratings side. I still believe that there’s going to be more and more advertisers, as you see the ratings grow, become more attached to this sport.”
And while the coverage on Fox, Speed, TNT and even ABC will all be part of whether the new television deal does well on the bottom line, the fact remains that only one of NASCAR’s partners in that contract is at the center of deciding what “mainstream” means in the world of sports. When ESPN had rights to the National Hockey League, especially the Stanley Cup playoffs, professional hockey was a prominent part of SportsCenter highlights and the network gave the NHL promotion suited for a major event. As the NBA emerged as a more prominent part of ESPN’s programming, it became difficult to go more than 15 minutes in a nightly SportsCenter without hearing the name “LeBron James.”
Who knows? By February 2007 when ESPN comes back to begin doing Busch races, the guys on SportsCenter may even have a few racing catchphrases to drop into the sports fans’ lexicon.
But sorry, guys. Fox will still be around, and we’re pretty sure Darrell Waltrip has “boogity, boogity, boogity” trademarked by now.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Over the past decade or so, a steady stream of young drivers has made its way into Nextel Cup racing, giving birth to NASCAR’s Young Gun generation. Tony Stewart came along in 1999, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived in 2000, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch got their starts in ’01, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson in ’02 — and the list goes on. But in any one year, there were never more than one or two drivers moving into potentially high-impact jobs, rides with the sport’s top teams.
The rookie class of 2006 looks to be the deepest in NASCAR history. Of the seven full-time newbies, six have jobs with either Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Joe Gibbs or Chip Ganassi. Not only is the two-time defending Busch Series champ, Martin Truex Jr., moving to Cup full-time, but so is Clint Bowyer, the man he edged out for the 2005 title. J.J. Yeley has a résumé that bears a remarkable similarity to defending Nextel Cup champ Tony Stewart. And Denny Hamlin, who ran seven Cup races last year (the maximum allowable for a driver to retain his rookie status), enjoyed three top 10 finishes.
The most intriguing member of the class is Truex, a 25-year-old who should bring stability to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Last year, the team was fraught with dissension. Nobody — drivers, crews — could get along. Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip had a series of on-track scrapes that led Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of competition Tony Eury Sr. to say “I don’t know what (Earnhardt’s) problem is with Michael, but it will be fixed ... I guarantee it. He acts like he’s friends with him, but every time he gets near him on the racetrack, he ends up wrecking him. DEI has enough problems. We don’t need that.”
Enter Truex, hand-picked by Junior in 2002 for a ride in the Busch Series. Truex was testing his Busch North car at Richmond at the same time Junior was practicing with his Busch car. A mutual friend introduced them, and they began talking about everything, it seemed, but racing. “I think our personalities go together really well,” Truex said.
Impressed with Truex’s character — not to mention his lap times — Junior offered to let him take his Busch car for a spin. Alas, the skies soon opened, but Earnhardt gave Truex quite a rain check: a ride for the Busch race at the track two months later. Truex ran near the front before an engine problem knocked him out of the race, but Earnhardt was impressed enough to give him a job in 2003 in the Chance 2 Busch car he owned with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.
From there Truex waltzed to the 2004 Busch title, presenting the Earnhardts with a conundrum: Should they bump Truex up to Cup racing? Junior, who in 1999 decided to stick around and try to defend his Busch title, decided Truex should do the same. It ended up being a wise move. While everything went right in ’04 for Truex — he didn’t have a single DNF — 2005 provided him a lesson in perseverance. He was 348 points out of the lead after just nine races. Then he got hot, blew out to a decent-sized lead, and then held on for dear life. “We could not do anything right for the last two months,” he said after wrapping up his second title. “It’s been a rough year — up and down, up and down. This thing (was) three times as hard to win as it was (in ’04).”
So now Truex will enter his first full-time Cup season as not only a proven winner, but also as a driver who has proven he can be resilient when things get rough, which, Earnhardt learned last year, they often do at the Cup level. Over the past two years Truex and Junior have become very close; Truex lived on Earnhardt’s couch for a while before moving into another house on Junior’s property. They’ve spent countless hours playing video games or boating together. They’re both the sons of racers (Truex Sr. was a racer in New Jersey). Earnhardt is clearly comfortable with Truex — “There aren’t many people I’d let drive my car,” Earnhardt says — and Truex looks primed to make the jump from Junior’s protégé to his sidekick.
When Earnhardt made the move up to the Cup series in 2000, he was joined by one of his chief Busch rivals, Matt Kenseth. Truex will also have a familiar foe: Bowyer, who finished second in the Busch series and is moving into Dave Blaney’s old seat with Richard Childress Racing. Childress had planned to bring Bowyer — who two years ago was working in a Ford dealership in Emporia, Kan., when Childress happened to see him run an ARCA race in Nashville — along slowly, moving him to the Nextel Cup in 2007. But Bowyer was so good in his first full season in a Busch car, and Blaney was so mediocre, that Childress began rethinking his options: a 44-year-old with one career top 5 in 199 races, or a hotshot 26-year-old who finished two spots ahead of Blaney in his one career Cup. It turned out to be an easy choice. “I like his style on the track,” Childress says. “Clint’s pretty aggressive. He doesn’t wait around. When he gets in traffic, he gets the job done.” Historically, Childress has done well with such drivers: Bowyer’s RCR teammate Kevin Harvick isn’t known for his passivity, nor was the late Dale Earnhardt.
Bowyer got his big chance when Childress happened to flip on a TV during a rain delay. Hamlin’s break was almost as fortuitous. In 2003 he was racing late model cars around North Carolina and Virginia — and winning quite a bit. Joe Gibbs wanted to look at some drivers for his team’s diversity program at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina. He needed a car, so he used Hamlin’s, since it was clearly quick. Hamlin half-seriously asked if he could run a few laps and show the Gibbs folks what he had. They said sure, and, in the words of Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs, he was “freakishly fast.” Gibbs put him in a truck for a few races in 2004, and late in the year gave him a one-time shot in a Busch car. Hamlin finished eighth at Darlington, so Gibbs hired him full-time.
With Jason Leffler struggling in Nextel Cup last year, Gibbs put the 25-year-old behind the wheel of the 11 car late in the season, and Hamlin promptly threw up three top 10s (and one pole) in seven starts. Keeping him in the Cup car for 2006 was a no-brainer. “He’s just so consistent and smooth on the track. He doesn’t get rattled,” J.D. Gibbs says. “He takes his time the first part of the race. He learns the track, he’s careful around guys, then he starts kind of picking up and moving.”
But Team Gibbs had another vacancy to fill when Bobby Labonte asked for, and received, an early release from his contract to join Petty Enterprises. The owner picked his other Busch driver, Yeley, a 29-year-old with a strong open-wheel résumé. In 2003 he became the second driver (Tony Stewart was the first) to win all three USAC national titles in the same season and was the youngest driver in the field in the 1998 Indy 500.
The prospect of having two of his three cars driven by rookies might make Gibbs a little skittish, but at least he’s got Stewart. Last year’s champion may not seem like the model team leader, but last year Stewart moved home to Indiana, getting away from the bustle of the Charlotte area. Returning to the small town in which he was raised mellowed him out significantly. In years past, he had trouble controlling his temper and butted heads with everyone — including, on occasion, Labonte. But last year saw a more mature Stewart, one who appears capable of being a pretty good mentor to two newbies. (He already has a great relationship with one of them. When Yeley won his USAC triple crown in 2003, he did it in a car owned by Stewart.)
Hamlin and Yeley aren’t the only pair of rookie teammates. Chip Ganassi promoted two of his Busch drivers to fill vacancies left by veteran Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray. Reed Sorenson is a 19-year-old who won twice in his first full Busch season; David Stremme, a high school classmate of Ryan Newman’s, has a slightly less sterling background. He has never won a Busch race and finished better than 36th just once in his four Cup starts last year. But Ganassi and his co-owner, Felix Sabates, weren’t getting much production out of Marlin and decided they might as well get a young, marketable driver in the car. Shortly after Stremme was announced as the 48-year-old Marlin’s replacement, Sabates told NASCAR.com, “This is a young man’s sport today. Unfortunately we all get old. Not that Sterling is old, but he’s not a marketing dream.”
Stremme and Sorenson are moving into decent cars; Ganassi has been competitive but hasn’t won a race since 2002. (The seventh member of the ’06 rookie class, Brent Sherman, will drive the 49 car, a perennial also-ran.) In any other year, they’d be frontrunners for top rookie honors, but not in 2006 — a year that will showcase the most promising rookie class the sport has ever seen.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
When members of the media got their first full whiff of the plan in October at Kansas Speedway, they went scurrying to Jack Roush, the owner who put all five of his Cup teams in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship “playoff,” for his reaction.
“It sure feels,” the diminutive Roush said that day, “like ‘Get Shorty’ to me.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France says he understands how Roush might feel targeted, since Roush was the only Cup Series car owner to have five full-time teams in 2005 and since the team limit eventually proposed was for four teams. But France swears there is a bigger picture here. “We don’t like the fact that the independent teams, or in particular a new owner looking at coming in the door, have a daunting task to compete and the concept of having to have five teams,” France says. “That means the opportunities aren’t there for young drivers. It means opportunities aren’t there to create the next Rick Hendrick and have that kind of success. It ultimately means that we don’t field as many competitive cars as we’d like to field. We have to address that.”
In many ways, of course, the idea that NASCAR can say out of one side of its mouth that the team owners in its premier series are “independent contractors” and then, out of the other side, say it’s going to tell these businessmen how many “stores” they’re allowed to open in the sport sounds absurdly contradictory.
But France and NASCAR president Mike Helton steadfastly maintain that if NASCAR doesn’t step in now, unchecked growth of the sport’s multi-car teams will result in a concentration of team ownership in only a very few hands that ultimately would be detrimental to the sport. And some of the men who own Nextel Cup teams agree.
“If I had five teams, I guess I would probably be on the other side of the street,” says Richard Childress, who owns three Cup teams. “But it would just gradually keep building. I can promise you that five would be a common number in a few years, and then the next person goes six or seven. It’s not that I wanted to have three race teams, I was driven there by my competition. When Junior Johnson went with two teams, others started to follow. Finally we had to go to two. We were one of the last teams to do it, but we knew we had to do it to survive.
“And what happens if you get down to a few car owners who control the whole thing? That’s where you’re close to having a problem, when you have five guys with eight teams. What we don’t need is a small amount of team owners who might come in one day and say, ‘You know, the track conditions aren’t quite like we like them, I don’t think we’ll race today.’ And all the fans have spent their money and taken vacations to come. We owe it to the fans to put a show on and we always have to have that in mind.”
Is NASCAR’s move just that, a preemptive strike against powerful owners spurred by the debacle that was the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis? Owners of all but six cars entered in that Formula One race pulled their cars off the track after the warm-up lap before the start after a dispute over tire safety and rules governing the event.
Or, is it aimed at preventing Toyota, which is expected to enter Nextel Cup competition as early as 2007, from coming in with a manufacturer-owned eight- or nine-car operation?
Or, is it simply a way of breaking up Roush’s team while preventing Rick Hendrick’s team from growing any larger as well? Between them, those two teams won 25 of the 36 points races in the Cup Series in 2005, leaving only 11 for all the rest of the teams to share.
France would say it’s none of the above. He would say the limit of four teams, to be phased in over a period of several years to allow Roush to honor sponsor commitments and to let Hendrick run former series champion Terry Labonte in a 10-race schedule previously planned in 2006, is all about where the sport needs to go.
“If I’m Jack Roush and I put five teams in the Chase (in 2005), then life is great,” France says. “I’ve played by the rules and I don’t want to see one thing change. But our problem is, as NASCAR we’ve got to look out for the future.
“We’ve got to look out for the Pettys, the Wood Brothers, Cal Wells and others. We’ve got to look out for new car owners who want to come into the sport. That’s not what Jack Roush is interested in, and I don’t blame him.”
Roush has not threatened to pull up stakes and leave the NASCAR business. He also has said publicly that he doesn’t plan to challenge NASCAR’s right to tell him how many teams he can have in court — at least not right now. “We are committed to this business,” Roush says. “We’ve made a huge investment in it. We will cooperate and participate with NASCAR at any level. So whatever rules they ultimately come up with, we’re in. You’re not going to get a sound byte from me or anybody in our organization that says, ‘Man, this might be the last straw.’ They’ve put a lot of loads of pig iron on my back before and we’ll truck this one just fine, too. I am committed to participate in this business and in this sport as long as I live and to carry forward the trust that my sponsors and my employees and my partners have put in me.”
France and Helton first revealed their plans to impose a team limit in a session with reporters at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 8. On Nov. 10, a statement outlining the policy was issued.
“The four-car limit will extend to owners and any affiliate group,” it read, “which includes situations where one or more of the car owners is entitled to receive, or actually receives, any financial consideration based upon the performance of the cars entered by the other car owners, or has any revenue sharing or ownership stake in the team.”
That would prevent a car owner from listing another employee or family member as the titular owner of a team that was really under the original owner’s control.
“On the other hand,” France said in explaining the policy further, “we still want to get the benefits of the multi-car teams and the infrastructure they have in place as they have in the past to help us launch new teams and new team owners.
“It’s been well noted how many teams and new teams that Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush and others have helped get into the sport, so that’s a good thing. We want to preserve that. We want to give those guys a chance to sell technology, sell shortcuts, if you will, to a potential new team owner. But we also don’t want a concentration that’s going out of control in terms of one ownership group having seven, eight, nine or 10 teams. Where would it end?”
Roush’s reaction after hearing about the four-team limit, which would not prevent a team from running a young driver with a fifth team for seven or fewer races in one season to prepare that driver to run for Rookie of the Year in the following season, was predictable.
“I’m the only guy with five viable teams and the worst of all scenarios is we put all five of them in the Chase and, of course, that gave the bonus to our sponsors for the exposure that they got from being involved with us rather than somebody else,” he says. “They want to diminish it to an extent. (Pro wrestling) has their ways of determining who is going to win and what the ranking is and maybe NASCAR behind the scenes is trying to do the same thing. I do take it personally. They tell me it’s not personal, but I’m the only guy standing here with five teams that is making them work.
“I’m not sure that what they’re doing is right. I’m not saying I’m the guy to go take a position and to unearth it right now, but I’m not sure what they’re trying to do is legally right or is defensible in a court of law. But I want to be in this business. I don’t want to jeopardize my sponsors and my drivers and our prospects in the near term, and too much distraction through an adjudication process would certainly not be in NASCAR’s interest and would almost certainly not be in my interest and would very likely not have an outcome that I could be happy with under any certain area. I choose not to fight that right now.”
One question that comes up often when discussing the concept of a team limit is this whole matter of barriers to ownership.
Could a Jack Roush or a Rick Hendrick, who both began as owners of a single team in the Cup series, come into the sport for the first time today given the resources they had when they did arrive, facing the choice of being non-competitive as a single-car team or having to start at least a two-car team to have a shot to win? The last time a car from a single-car team won a Cup race was 103 races ago when Ricky Craven won at Darlington in the spring of 2003.
Ray Evernham had plenty of help from DaimlerChrysler when he left his job as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports to become a team owner. He started with two teams and, starting in 2006, will have three Dodges on the track. Robert Yates has two Ford teams but said after the four-team limit was announced in late 2005 that he’ll have to work toward adding two more teams because the cap “sets the template” for a successful operation at four teams.
“I believe that probably the best thing for the sport would be not to have three or four owners control all the cars,” Evernham says. “But in fairness to what Jack and Rick have built over the years as businessmen and racers, it’s not fair to penalize them for working within the rules. If what NASCAR wants to accomplish is to let people like me come in and be competitive, then we need to maybe manage the rules we race under a little bit better so the cost can be contained. If Jack and Rick want to have 10 teams at that point, the rules would be in such a way that they would not have a huge advantage over someone who only had two or three teams. I think the responsibility lies in how we manage the sport going forward, not in how many cars somebody has.”
Joe Gibbs Racing went from two to three teams in 2005. Team president J.D. Gibbs agreed with Evernham that, while the idea of limiting team ownership has merit, implementing it could be tricky.
“It would have been a lot easier if four or five years ago NASCAR said, ‘Here’s the deal…’” says Gibbs, who runs the team on a day-to-day basis now that his father has returned to coach the NFL’s Washington Redskins. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the sport to have five or six owners have all the cars. But Jack (Roush) has put all his equity and effort into building these teams the way they have. What NASCAR needs to do is, if you’re going to make these changes, you’ve got to bring some equity back to the teams.
“Jack Kent Cooke, who was the owner of the Redskins, would scream and yell every year that he was losing money. And he probably was — or breaking even. But he forgot to mention that his equity went up $30 million a year. Over here, it’s not a financial bonanza by any means. But if you have that equity that you knew was going to be in those teams, it would probably make a big difference. I know it would for us.”
While Tony Stewart’s championship in 2005 was the third championship in the past six seasons for Joe Gibbs Racing, it has been Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports that have emerged as the sport’s “superpowers” in recent years. Roush won championships with Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004, and Hendrick has four championships with Gordon and has had Jimmie Johnson in the thick of title contention in each of the past three seasons. “Personally, I think Jack should be able to run five teams,” Hendrick says. “He’s built his organization. I remember people telling me I’d never win a championship running multiple teams. I would have liked to have seen Jack grandfathered in forever with five.
“For me, with four teams I think they did me a favor to protect me from myself. It’s good for the sport — making this move now before people have six or seven teams.”
Hendrick doesn’t believe, however, that it was an absolute certainty that teams would have grown much larger if left unchecked — at least not successfully.
“If you’re running like Jack was in 2005 with all five of them in the top 10, you’re in good shape,” Hendrick says. “But if you’ve got two that are doing well and two that are struggling, and you add another team, you’ve got sponsors that are going to tell you to fix your (current) deal before you start another deal.
“I think it was going to take care of itself. It could screw up about as many people as it could help by adding teams. I really don’t think you can keep seven sponsors happy and seven drivers happy. Jack’s deal is an unbelievable feat for him to have five cars run that good and that equal.”
The ownership cap is not the only measure NASCAR is taking beginning in 2006 to try to minimize the advantages enjoyed by multi-car teams. Although NASCAR allowed each car the same number of tests, for instance, Roush cars effectively had a five-to-one edge in testing over a single-car team because each of the five Roush teams could test at a different track on the Cup schedule and share the data gathered with the other teams in the Roush stable. Mark Martin, for instance, didn’t have to test at Atlanta to get data if Carl Edwards tested there. But a Ricky Rudd, driving the lone Wood Brothers-owned car, got only the data from the Cup tracks where that team chose to test.
Beginning this year, however, NASCAR will select the tracks and dates at which teams will be allowed to test. There might still be an advantage for a multi-car team, since Roush’s cars could try five different set-ups at the same time on the track while Rudd could only try one at a time. But Rudd’s team would still at least have a chance to test at the same number of tracks on the Cup schedule that Martin’s or Edwards’ will. That doesn’t stop Roush or Hendrick teams from going to Kentucky or Nashville, tracks that don’t have Cup events, and testing more often. But NASCAR will fight that, too, by instituting a tire-leasing program. When teams show up for a race weekend, instead of buying sets of tires from Goodyear for use during the event, they will now lease them. Teams could take sets of tires they bought but didn’t use home for use in tests before, but now each tire taken out under the leasing program must be checked in before the team leaves the track that weekend.
Teams that knew the leasing policy was coming stockpiled unused sets last year and have been storing them to use in tests at non-Cup tracks this year. But eventually, that inventory will be used up and, NASCAR hopes, the testing advantage of the multi-car teams will be used up with it.
Helton also points to other rules adopted in recent years, like ones limiting teams to a single engine per race weekend and limiting the number of rear-end gears from which teams can select at each race, as ways NASCAR has worked to contain costs and help car owners. “I think we’ve got a history of doing (things) to help car owners stay in business, and entice enthusiasts and owners who wanted to be in the business to be in it,” Helton says. “It has been since 1992 that a single-car owner has won a championship. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, but if we allowed this current trend to keep going, we could be looking here one day and say, well, it was 2005 since the last two-car team won a championship. And we don’t think that’s good for the sport going deep into the future.
“So we choose to put a cap out. Then we have to choose what the number is, and we basically do that by taking a snapshot of the garage area as it is today, analyzing statistics from the past, analyzing what we think trends will do going forward, and talking with a lot of owners about what’s reasonable today.
“We chose the number four as the logical, or the one that made the most sense based on the snapshot of the industry out there today. And that’s what led us to this number and that’s what led us to this date.”
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
As the prospect of NASCAR’s not having either of its biggest names in the 2005 Chase for the Nextel Cup settled on the sport early last summer, there were those who actually, honestly expected an 11th-hour format change to prevent that from happening.
No such alteration came, of course. There’s no real evidence, in fact, to support the idea it was ever even considered.
But the very fact that rumor of such a change even made one lap around the Cup garage without getting immediately shot down proves just how significant it was that neither Jeff Gordon nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among last year’s Chase contenders.
Ardent fans who follow the standings each week knew, as the 2005 season moved toward the Chase, that Gordon was trying to play catch-up to make the top 10 and that Earnhardt Jr. had fallen so far behind there was no coming back this time around.
But many people who watch NASCAR less frequently might have tuned in when the Chase opened in September and been surprised that neither Gordon nor
Earnhardt Jr. had any shot at winning the championship.
After all, Gordon was the sport’s winningest active driver who kicked off his quest for a fifth championship last year with a victory in the Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest event. He’d hosted Saturday Night Live and filled in for Regis Philbin. He’d even made the supermarket tabloids when he got a costly divorce.
And then there was Earnhardt Jr., whose commercials seem to run more often than the “Can You Hear Me Now?” guy’s do. The son of the man who, for a generation, embodied the things that helped NASCAR grow from a regional niche to a national phenomenon had won a Daytona 500 of his own the previous year and seemed poised to win a title of his own.
Without either Junior or Gordon in the Chase, the big national story going into the 10-race title contest wasn’t who might win the championship, but how might ticket sales and television ratings for the Chase’s second year be impacted by the absence of the sport’s top two names? Never mind, of course, that Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. were still going to be racing in those final 10 events, or that under the pre-Chase championship system they both would have been out of title contention long before the final 10 races.
But while so many others were wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth about what marketing impact their absences from the Chase might have, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. were far more concerned about what to do so that the question wouldn’t need to be answered again.
As soon as it was official they couldn’t win the 2005 title, both Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. immediately turned their attention toward getting back into contention in the upcoming season.
“Our 2006 started when the (2005) Chase started,” Gordon says. “By not making the Chase, we were able to really regroup and make a bunch of changes, not just personnel changes, but changes with the race cars themselves as well. When the season is going on, you can’t make major changes because you’ve got too many guys that you’re battling with for points and you don’t want to make huge changes.”
The most visible moves for both Gordon and Earnhardt were changes in the crew chief’s position. Beginning with the first Chase race at Loudon, N.H., Robbie Loomis left the top of Gordon’s pit box and gave way to Steve Letarte, a long-time Hendrick Motorsports employee who Gordon said the team had been grooming to take over the position anyway. Loomis stayed on at Hendrick Motorsports as a consultant to Jimmie Johnson’s team for the rest of the 2005 season, then left to take over leadership of day-to-day activities at Petty Enterprises. Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, tried to erase a sub-par 2005 season by going back a year. After the 2004 season, Dale Earnhardt Inc. officials announced a team swap that put Earnhardt Jr. with the crew and cars that Michael Waltrip had been in. That put Pete Rondeau in charge of the No. 8 Chevrolets for Earnhardt Jr., but that experiment lasted only until May. Steve Hmiel, who’d been overseeing all of DEI’s racing operations, took over as Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at Charlotte.
By New Hampshire, however, Earnhardt Jr. had been reunited with Tony Eury Jr., who had served as car chief under his father, Tony Sr., on the No. 8 cars before the big swap. Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. grew up together, but even though they loved each other like brothers, they often fought like brothers, too. Eury Jr. served as Michael Waltrip’s crew chief for the first two-thirds of the 2005 season, but when it was announced that Waltrip would leave DEI at season’s end it seemed to be only a matter of time before Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. would be reunited.
As early as Indianapolis in August, in fact, Earnhardt Jr. was talking about what eventually did happen a month later.
“We didn’t change the teams because of a performance issue,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “We changed it because of attitude issues between me and Tony Jr. (And) it did what it was supposed to do. It fixed my attitude and it fixed his attitude. Now we look at each other and talk to each other today totally different. We have a lot more respect for each other (and) that gives us an opportunity to work together in the future that we wouldn’t have had if we had run ourselves totally apart.
“On performance issues, maybe we shouldn’t have changed things. But in the long run, personally I am better for it, and I think Tony Jr. is too. I think we were just both really immature for our age. That’s due to the fact our fathers let us raise ourselves, pretty much. I think the more mature we get the easier it is for us to work together. This year sped that up quite a bit, being away from each other.”
It is fair to say that neither change proved to be an immediate panacea for Gordon or Earnhardt Jr. Gordon finished 37th twice and 38th once in the four races after New Hampshire. After finishing fifth at Loudon, Earnhardt Jr. was 31st, 40th, 34th and 42nd in his next four races.
But Gordon won at Martinsville, then finished second at Atlanta, 14th at Texas, third at Phoenix and ninth at Homestead. Earnhardt Jr. led 142 laps and finished fourth at Atlanta and was eighth at Texas before crashing at Phoenix and running a so-so 19th at Homestead, a track where he’s always struggled.
On the momentum front, then, Gordon would seem to have the upper hand on Earnhardt Jr. coming into a 2006 season that, for both of them, looms as a very important year in their respective careers. Earnhardt Jr. will be back with a crew chief he’s worked very closely with on the Cup level, while Gordon’s crew chief will be going through his first full season in the crucible.
“I think we have a little bit of new life in the team, which happens sometimes,” Gordon say. “Sometimes you need to get a spark going and get some excitement. Sometimes it takes changes. We’ve got that right now. I like working with Steve Letarte. He’s exceeded my expectations. I’m looking forward to 2006. We don’t like finishing outside the top 10 in points. We want to make sure that (this) year we’re battling for the championship.”
NASCAR wants fans to care about who finishes highest in the final standings among those not in the Chase, but nobody does. Gordon certainly didn’t care after doing that in 2005, holding off Jamie McMurray by 44 points. His victory at Martinsville, which completed a season’s sweep at the short track in Virginia, was nice, of course. But he was far more worried about how he and his team could get the No. 24 Chevrolets running better on intermediate tracks, where things had derailed on them earlier in 2005.
Gordon won the Daytona 500 last year, then won at Talladega and Martinsville, too. He finished second at Darlington, and despite having finished 30th at California and 39th at Atlanta he was still second in the points after 10 races. What followed that, though, was the worst six-race stretch of his Cup career. Except for a ninth at Pocono, Gordon finished 30th or worse from Richmond to Sonoma. In the first 10 races of last season, he scored 1,392 points. Over the next 10, he scored 866. Still, when he finished sixth at Bristol in August, he actually got back up to 10th in the standings with two races before the Chase cutoff. But he finished 21st at California and 30th at Richmond, and that was that.
“The only way you should be in the Chase is if you’ve earned it,” Gordon says. “The bottom line is we didn’t earn it.”
If Gordon can bounce all the way back into contention, 2006 could be a milestone year in his career. He did win four races in 2005, bringing his career total to 73. Dale Earnhardt Sr. had 76 career victories. Gordon has now won three or more races in a remarkable 11 straight seasons, so if he continues that streak he will at least tie Earnhardt on the all-time victories list in 2006.
If Gordon does win a fifth championship in ’06, his ’05 season will undoubtedly be compared to the blip on Earnhardt’s résumé that was his 1992 campaign. After winning championships in 1990 and 1991, Earnhardt finished 12th in the 1992 standings with only six top 5s and one victory. Kirk Shelmerdine left as Earnhardt’s crew chief after that season, but in the next two years Earnhardt came back to win his sixth and seventh championships.
The subject of championships, of course, also comes up immediately when attention is turned to Junior. The 31-year-old son of the sport’s fallen legend had finished third and fifth in the final standings in the two seasons prior to 2005. He’d won six races and finished in the top 5 on 16 occasions in 2004, so he seemed to need only a modicum of consistency added to his formula to make him a threat to add to the family’s championship totals.
It’s pointless now to rehash the DEI decision to swap crews and cars before the 2005 season. No one needed particularly keen perception to know that it was a major gamble going in, and it didn’t take very long to figure out that it was not paying off.
Earnhardt Jr. finished third in the Daytona 500 to start 2005 but was 32nd at California and 42nd at Las Vegas — the kind of tracks where the No. 8 team has never really seemed to get a handle on things. Six straight top 15 finishes, starting with Bristol, got him back to ninth in the standings, but that wound up being the high-water mark. Earnhardt Jr. did parlay a fuel-mileage gamble into a race victory at Chicagoland Speedway in July, extending his streak of having at least one win in each of his six full Cup seasons. But he finished 19th in the final standings, the lowest in each of those six years.
Earnhardt Jr. admits that for much of 2005 he kept waiting for his team’s momentum to catch and carry him up into the Chase.
“I felt like we would make a surge and get there,” he says. “I saw who we were racing against, and I felt like we could get good enough to beat those guys. When you look at it, really, the Chase is relatively easy to make when you don’t have a year like we had. Maybe ‘easy’ isn’t the right word, but it is if our team does what we’re capable of. If we just do a couple of things different, we’re in. It’s a makeable deal for everybody who’s competitive on a weekly basis.”
The 2005 season was sub-par on all fronts for Earnhardt Jr. and his team. Although he’s won only six Cup poles in his career, Earnhardt Jr.’s average starting spot for Cup races had been 13th or better for three seasons before 2005. Last year, it was 24.9. His average finish was 20.5, about eight spots below the previous two years.
“This year is going to be pretty important for us,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “My sponsors want us to do well and have a good season. All of them put a lot into marketing stuff and you have to back it up on the track. I put pressure on myself, too. I expect it out of myself, to run well and run up front.”
While Gordon has the pressure of living up to his own résumé, in some fans’ eyes the gauge for Earnhardt Jr. is his father. It’s hard for anyone to fill those shoes, but statistically Earnhardt Jr. is not doing that poorly.
After his sixth full season in the Cup Series, Earnhardt Sr. had run 188 races and won 11 times. He had 68 top 5 and 108 top 10 finishes and had led 4,624 laps. At that same stage, with six full seasons under his belt, Earnhardt Jr. has 219 starts with 16 wins, 59 top 5s and 92 top 10s. And he’s led 4,610 laps.
But Earnhardt did have a championship in his first six years. Earnhardt Jr. does not, and there are those who say that until he does win a championship, his popularity and status in the sport are not completely deserved. “Sometimes it gets rough on me,” Earnhardt Jr. says of the expectations. “Most of the time, though, the expectations are legitimate. We’re in a professional sport, showing up with the opportunity and the resources and the people to compete. We should be taking this seriously and striving for excellence. It’s not about shelling out excuses all of the time.”
Earnhardt Jr. says the pressure to win a championship this year is not as great as it might seem. “I know I can do this for a long time,” he says. “I don’t know what everybody anticipates out of me as far as longevity, but I think I am getting better at managing the off-track stuff every year, and managing the mental side of it. I think I will have plenty of opportunities to win championships and just to be there battling for them like we were the previous couple of years before this one. That’s all you want.
“Winning championships is the icing on the cake to what I’ve already accomplished. I am not satisfied with what I’ve been able to do now. I’m proud of it, and I’ve already been able to do more than I anticipated I could. But I see there’s potential for me to strive to achieve more. I want to realize those goals one day.”
Earnhardt Jr. says that just because he’s not like his father in some ways, it doesn’t mean he has less desire to be a champion.
“It surprises me that people question my desire,” he says. “I don’t claim to have the killer desire or instinct that my dad had. He had his ‘The Intimidator’ style. But I am as determined to drive and win and race hard and pass and beat people as he was. I don’t give up spots on the track. I race hard.
“The only thing that separates us is that he was intimidating. I’m not. I don’t look intimidating. Now when I am on the track and I am catching up to you, maybe you’re worried about what Junior is going to do. But I don’t drive a black car, I don’t have a snarl on my face and I don’t wear the dark sunglasses. That was his persona, but it was real. It’s who he was. He did a lot of things with a race car that I can’t even dream about doing, but I am as hard after it as anybody.”
Ndamukong Suh has been suspended for two games without pay for his action against the Green Bay Packers Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day.
Suh, who pounded Smith's head into the ground three times, before stomping on him while he was lying on the ground was ejected from the game at the time early in the third quarter, making the real total of this suspension about two and a half games.
It is unclear if Suh will appeal this ban, but the Lions have a very important game against the New Orleans Saints this week. If Suh is unable to appeal, and then play in this game, it will be a serious blow to the Lions, who will be going up against Drew Brees, who just threw 5 TD passes against the Giants and has been in consideration for the NFL's MVP.
Suh's stupid play will be a huge factor if he's unable to play. To get Brees off his game, you have to pressure him up the middle, which is one of the things Suh does better than anyone in the league.
If Suh's unable to play, and the Lions lose this game, they will most likely be on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. This is another chapter in Ndamukong Suh going from hard-nosed player who plays on close to the line, to a dirty player who's selfish reactions not only cost his team a game or two, but could cost them a chance at the playoffs.
Accroding to Darren Rovell, the two-game suspension will cost Suh $164,000.
The next question is how does the Lions coach, Jim Caldwell, deal with Suh. The line between being a tough football player and a dirty football player is very thin. And for a coach, you always want a player playing as close to the line as possible. Some of Suh's fines in the past have been borderline, given the NFL's new harder stance on helmet-to-helmet hits and tough play. And I'm sure that Caldwell has given Suh some leeway in the way he's played.
But what Suh did against the Packers was very different, and Caldwell needs to find a way to get Suh to come back to playing like a tough football player, instead of a dirty one. If he's able to do that, Suh can be a dominant force in the league.
But if he's not, Suh will be watched much more closesly given his histroy and will be scrutinized more than other players. The same thing happened to James Harrison. Can Suh get his image back? Time will tell.
Article originally published in Athlon's 2008 Pac-10 College Football magazine.
Paul Wulff Comes Home at Washington State
You’ve probably never heard of Paul Wulff. He’s the new head coach at Washington State, arriving via Eastern Washington, up the road about 80 miles in Cheney where he built a solid Division I-AA program.
Cougar fans like him, partly because he’s an alum, partly because he’s just like them, an average guy who skis and hunts and drinks beer and can’t stand Washington, the cross-state rival.
But in most ways, he’s not like anyone. Wulff, 41, has experienced two tragedies — his mother was murdered when he was 12, and his first wife died of brain cancer six years ago. Even worse, Wulff and other family members believe that their alcoholic dad killed their mom.
Dolores Wulff was a beautiful woman, and of all the sons, the WSU coach looks the most like her. She died at the age of 45, disappearing from her Yolo County (Calif.) home on July 31, 1979.
Wulff will discuss the mysterious circumstances about his mom’s death, but it’s hard to bring them up again.
“Even at that age, I knew something was not right,” he says.
According to a story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, investigators found traces of Dolores Wulff’s blood, an earring, a strand of her hair and a palm print in the trunk of Carl Wulff’s car. Looking for her body, family members dug around their home and in other remote areas. But her remains were never found. One investigator said he believed her body ended up under I-505, a freeway that was under construction at the time.
In 1985, a murder charge against Carl Wulff was dismissed, and no one has a logical explanation for that.
So there has been no closure for Wulff. His father died of heart failure three years ago.
After his mom vanished, Wulff was raised through his teenage years by an uncle and supported by his brothers and cousins.
“Everyone bonded together and stayed together,” Wulff says. “They kept me on track and didn’t allow me to stray.”
There was something else that prevented him from going the wrong way in life.
“My mom was such a good person,” Wulff says. “I remember that I didn’t want to upset her. I didn’t want to do anything I know she wouldn’t have liked.”
He got his aggression out on the football field and turned himself into such a good offensive lineman that Washington State recruited him and brought him to Pullman, just where he wanted to be.
“My background was in agriculture, and they were the only school in the Pac-10 that had that, and I didn’t want to be in a big city,” Wulff says.
He also admits that he needed to get away — from Davis, Calif., and the memories from his past.
“I had to separate myself from that,” he says. “I had to make it on my own.”
As a center, Wulff anchored the Cougars’ offensive line in the late 1980s, leading a rushing attack that shocked Troy Aikman and No. 1 UCLA in ’88, a game that still ranks as one of the best in Washington State history.
Wulff signed a free agent contract with the Jets, but that didn’t work out, nor did a couple of dalliances with the World League of American Football. That led to a volunteer assistant’s job at Eastern Washington and a climb to the head coach’s office in 2000.
Wulff and his first wife, Tammy, arrived in Cheney in ’93 in an ’84 Volkswagen Rabbit. They lived in a trailer in the country and heard the coyotes howl at night. While Wulff was the offensive line coach in ’97, his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. For the next five years, she was in and out of treatment. She died in Wulff’s arms on March 12, 2002, at the age of 39.
He’s had his “why-me” moments. But don’t ask him if he feels that way now.
“My wife would say, ‘Why not me?’” Wulff says. “If she can say that, I can’t remotely have self-pity.”
Wulff has since remarried and in addition to his wife’s 12-year-old daughter, they have two sons, Max and Sam.
“I see my 1-year-old and 4-year-old and think, ‘Wow, where did this come from?’ It seems like such a gift,” Wulff says. “At the age of 35, this was not in my world of possibility.”
Nor was this job, this opportunity. He can’t believe that either. Wulff was just a cog here, and now he’s the head of the whole darn thing. Which is also amazing, because he wasn’t the leading candidate until he interviewed with athletic director Jim Sterk.
“With this hire, I feel we’ve come full circle,” Sterk says. “Coach Wulff is the epitome of the values we’re looking for in our head football coach. Some people who do not know coach Wulff will be surprised by this hire. Those who know him believe it is the best hire I could ever make.”
Washington State means a lot to Wulff. Ask him if he loves this school, and he’ll say: “Absolutely.”
“It was such a refuge for me,” Wulff says. “I have such a respect for the people here and this whole university. It allowed me to move forward. It has a big imprint on who I am.”
He is so emotionally invested that it projects well for the future. Wulff wants this to work and knows that it will. He has implemented an all-the-time no-huddle offense and has reworked the defense, looking for athletic linemen in particular.
At spring practice, Wulff noticed that the Cougars were lacking in basics and moxie, which surprised him. That led to longer practices in an attempt to develop a new culture.
“From a fundamental standpoint, we’re at ground zero,” Wulff says. “And we do have some savvy veterans, but we need to have more. What’s emerging is so much room for growth.”
Whoever you are wherever you are, rebuilding takes time. Wulff’s offense will be led by a fifth-year senior quarterback, which sounds good until you find out that Gary Rogers rarely played as Alex Brink’s backup.
Wulff will shore up the problem areas with stronger recruiting in a more pronounced challenge to Washington for in-state stars. He thinks Pullman is a much better place than Seattle and what he calls “external (big-) city issues that can seep into a kid’s life.”
When Wulff meets recruits, he can tell them his story, how it worked out for him, how WSU changed his life. He can tell them what it was like while he was here and after he graduated, living in a trailer in nearby Albi with mice as his roommates.
He’s much better off now, and that’s where he wants the Cougars to be. “I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,” Wulff says. “This isn’t a stepping stone. I truly care about this place. I want to get this place to where people are proud of the football program.”
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After four seasons, UCLA has announced Rick Neuheisel’s tenure will end after the Pac-12 Championship. Neuheisel came to Los Angeles with a lot of promise, but never got the Bruins into conference title contention. The Bruins were 21-28 under Neuheisel and made just one bowl appearance.
Who will replace Rick Neuheisel at UCLA?
Gary Andersen, head coach, Utah State – If UCLA wants to target an up-and-coming coach, Andersen would be the perfect fit. During his tenure at Utah State, the Aggies have recorded a 14-21 record. While that may not seem impressive, the program has turned a corner this year, earning its first bowl game since 1997 this season. He also has coaching stops at Northern Arizona, Utah and Southern Utah.
Mike Bellotti, former Oregon head coach – Bellotti had a very successful run as Oregon’s head coach from 1995-08, recording a 137-80-2 record. He also led the Ducks to 12 bowl games, including a Fiesta Bowl win over Colorado in 2001. Bellotti is a California native, playing at UC Davis from 1970-72 and working at Chico State from 1984-88. The only downside to Bellotti is his age – he will be 61 when the 2012 season starts. If he wants to get back into coaching, UCLA would be a good fit.
Art Briles, head coach, Baylor – Briles has spent his entire coaching career in Texas, so it would be a surprise to see him leave. However, UCLA is a better job than Baylor and he may be ready for a new challenge after leading the Bears to a 23-25 record over the last four seasons. Before coming to Baylor, Briles compiled a 34-28 record in five seasons at Houston. It’s a longshot that Briles would leave coaching in Texas, but he’s a successful coach and someone UCLA should at least inquire about his interest.
Tom Cable, offensive line coach, Seattle Seahawks – Cable is certainly familiar with UCLA, serving as its offensive coordinator from 2004-05. He also has stops as an assistant at Idaho, UNLV and California. Cable has worked in the NFL since 2006, including a stint as the Oakland Raiders head coach (17-27). While Cable has a solid resume, his four-year run as Idaho’s head coach was awful. The Vandals went 5-6 in his first year and only won five games in the remaining three seasons. Winning at Idaho is no easy task, but Cable's record is cause for concern. It would be a surprise if Cable got the full-time job at UCLA.
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – While Houston’s Kevin Sumlin and Southern Mississippi’s Larry Fedora have gotten the most attention from the non-BCS ranks, keep a close eye on Christensen. He played at Washington from 1980-82 and served under Don James as the offensive line coach in 1988. Christensen coordinated Missouri’s offense from 1997-08, before taking the head coaching gig at Wyoming. In three seasons, he has recorded a 17-19 record and a bowl appearance in 2009. Christensen has done a good job of getting results with young quarterbacks at Wyoming, and the Bruins need a jumpstart on offense.
Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst would not be a flashy hire, but has a strong resume and is regarded as one of the top assistants in college football. The Badgers have led the Big Ten in scoring offense over the last three seasons and finished among the top two in the conference in rushing over the last five years. Chryst has coaching stops with the San Diego Chargers and as Oregon State’s offensive coordinator, but is a Wisconsin alum, so pulling him away from Madison won’t be easy. The only downside to Chryst is no head coaching experience.
Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Texas – Diaz is a rising star in the assistant coaching ranks and is ready for his first head coaching gig. He has made stops at MTSU, NC State, Mississippi State before joining Texas as its defensive coordinator this year. The Longhorns enter the final week of regular season play ranked ninth nationally in total defense and are allowing only 21 points a game. Diaz does not have any ties to the West Coast, but is young, energetic and a good recruiter.
Sonny Dykes, head coach, Louisiana Tech – Dykes has done a good job in just two seasons at Louisiana Tech, leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record and WAC title this year. He also has experience coaching in the Pac-12, spending 2007-09 as Mike Stoops’ offensive coordinator at Arizona. Dykes has only two years of head coaching experience, but his resume is solid and has a good background working as an assistant. He is also an offensive guru, something that is needed at UCLA after finishing 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense this season.
Butch Jones, head coach, Cincinnati – Jones is a name that has been popping up this season for open jobs, including North Carolina and Illinois. With the Big East facing an uncertain future, Jones could be looking to land a job with more stability. He does not have any experience coaching west of Michigan, but has a 39-24 record in five seasons as a head coach. Although Jones seems like an odd fit at UCLA, his track record as a proven winner has to be attractive for a program that needs to get this hire right.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – Jones has resurrected two programs – Hawaii and SMU. Is it time to consider a BCS job? Jones took a Hawaii team that won five games in three seasons prior to arrival to post 12 victories in the next two. He also led SMU to back-to-back bowl games (2009-10) for the first time since 1983-84. He has NFL experience, working with the Oilers, Lions, Falcons and Chargers. Jones is regarded as one of college football’s top offensive minds and will implement a high-powered passing attack if hired.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – There have been mixed signals on whether or not Leach is a candidate at UCLA. However, he is someone the Bruins have to seriously consider. Although there is plenty of baggage from the end of his tenure at Texas Tech, Leach recorded an 84-43 record with 10 bowl appearances. Although most of Leach’s coaching experience has been in the Midwest, he was born in Susanville, Calif.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State – It seems Petersen will be mentioned with every BCS job opening. However, it would take a lot for him to leave Boise – and it’s an extreme longshot he would leave for UCLA.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Arizona State, Kansas, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Illinois and now UCLA. That’s the list of expected suitors for Sumlin this offseason. Needless to say - assuming he wants to leave Houston - Sumlin will have his choice of jobs. During his four seasons with the Cougars, Sumlin has compiled a 35-16 record and has the them in the hunt for an-large spot in the BCS with a win over Southern Miss. He also has a strong resume as an assistant, working under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Joe Tiller at Purdue.
Willie Taggart, head coach, Western Kentucky – Taggart inherited a difficult situation at Western Kentucky, with the Hilltoppers winning only two games in the two seasons prior to his arrival. After finishing 2-10 in his first year, Western Kentucky finished 2011 with a 7-5 record and is in the mix for its first bowl appearance. He has some experience coaching on the West Coast, working under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09. Taggart is not a big name, but has done a good job at a difficult place to win. And it’s only a matter of time before he gets a shot at a BCS job.
DeWayne Walker, head coach, New Mexico State – Walker is a name most UCLA fans are probably very familiar with. He worked under Karl Dorrell from 2006-08 and served as the interim coach in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2007. Walker took a difficult job at New Mexico State, but the Aggies have made steady progress, posting a 4-8 record with one game remaining this year. He has built a strong resume as an assistant, spending time at Oklahoma State, California, USC and in the NFL with the Patriots, Giants and Redskins. Walker may not be the flashiest of hires, but is a solid coach with familiarity with the program.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Arizona State was widely considered the favorite to represent the South Division in the first Pac-12 title game. With USC ineligible for the conference championship, the Sun Devils had an open path and got off to a solid 6-2 start. However, the wheels fell off in November. Arizona State finished with four consecutive losses, including disappointing efforts against Washington State and Arizona. The collapse cost Dennis Erickson his job after five seasons in Tempe. Erickson recorded a 31-30 record, and he was never able to capitalize off a 10-3 record in 2007.
Who will replace Dennis Erickson at Arizona State in 2012?
Gary Andersen, head coach, Utah State – Andersen is an under-the-radar name to watch in Arizona State’s coaching search. In three years at Utah State, he has recorded a 14-21 record. The Aggies enter the final week of the regular season with a 6-5 record and have already accepted a bowl bid. Andersen also worked at Utah under Urban Meyer (2004) and Kyle Whittingham from 2005-08. While the overall record is not overly impressive, it's clear Utah State has turned a corner under Andersen.
Mike Bellotti, former Oregon head coach – Although Bellotti seems to be interested in making a return to the sidelines, it may be a longshot to see him in Tempe. After canning Dennis Erickson, Arizona State may be looking to get younger. Bellotti will be 61 when the 2012 season starts and seems unlikely to coach for more than 10 seasons. It's not out of the question Bellotti could end up at Arizona State, but he has a better chance to land the job at UCLA.
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – Christensen is building a solid resume through three seasons at Wyoming. The Cowboys have a 17-19 record in his tenure, but made a bowl trip in 2009 and will likely do so once again this year. He also has experience as an assistant under Gary Pinkel at Missouri, and is familiar with the Pac-10 (now Pac-12), thanks to playing at Washington under Don James from 1980-82.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – While English has cut his teeth as an assistant in the Big Ten and as a defensive coordinator for Lloyd Carr at Michigan, his roots are on the West Coast. He played at California from 1987-90 and coached as an assistant at Northern Arizona, San Diego State and Arizona State. English has an 8-28 record in Ypsilanti, but winning at Eastern Michigan is arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. He led the Eagles to a 6-6 record this year, which is just their second season of at least six victories since 1988. Considering his familiarity with the program, English has to be near the top of Arizona State’s wish list.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – If Fedora wants to leave Southern Miss, he is going to have plenty of options. His name has already been mentioned at Ole Miss, North Carolina and Illinois. In four seasons at Southern Miss, Fedora has recorded a 32-19 record and one division title (2011). He has a solid resume as an assistant, spending time at Florida and Oklahoma State. Although Fedora will likely take a BCS job this year, he does not have any coaching experience in the Pac-12. It seems more likely Fedora will land at Ole Miss or Illinois, but Arizona State would be a good landing spot for an offense-first head coach.
Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator, Oregon – Helfrich is an unknown on the national radar, but is someone that is going to get more consideration for head coaching jobs that open on the West Coast. He worked as an assistant at Boise State from 1998-00, Arizona State from 2001-05, Colorado from 2006-08 and at Oregon since 2009. Helfrich is only 37 years old, but would fit with Arizona State’s plan to likely hire a younger coach after parting ways with Dennis Erickson. A downside to Helfrich is that he has no head coaching experience.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – After turning around Hawaii and SMU, Jones could be ready for a challenge at a BCS school. He has a 99-69 record in 13 seasons as a college head coach, while also making stops in the NFL with the Oilers, Lions, Falcons and Chargers. Jones is known for his high-powered offenses, which would fit well with the current personnel in Tempe. However, his salary at SMU is very competitive for a non-BCS school. Jones is a proven winner and would be a great hire for Arizona State. But is he ready to leave SMU?
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – Just like Kevin Sumlin and Larry Fedora, Leach’s name has popped up for several vacant coaching positions this season. Although his exit from Texas Tech has left him with some baggage, Leach would be a strong hire at Arizona State. Considering the returning offensive personnel next season, his Air Raid offense would be a great fit in Tempe. Most of Leach’s coaching experience has been in the Midwest, but he was born in California and spent one season as an assistant at Cal Poly.
Noel Mazzone, offensive coordinator, Arizona State – The Sun Devils may not have to look far for their next head coach. Mazzone is a well-traveled assistant, spending time at Colorado State, TCU, Minnesota, Ole Miss, Auburn, Oregon State, NC State and in the NFL with the Jets. He became Arizona State’s offensive coordinator in 2010, directing the offense to an average of 33.1 points a game over the last two years. Mazzone does not have any head coaching experience, which could hurt his chances of landing the full-time job in Tempe.
Randy Shannon, former Miami head coach – Shannon was fired after working as Miami’s head coach from 2007-10. During his tenure with the Hurricanes, he recorded a 28-22 record and led the team to three bowl appearances. Although his on-field success at Miami was limited, Shannon was praised for his team’s graduation rates and eliminating off-the-field incidents. While it may seem like an odd fit, reports out of Miami have indicated Shannon would be interested in a coaching position in Arizona. Shannon will likely land another coaching gig this offseason, but it’s a longshot he is coaching on the sidelines in Tempe next year.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – With every BCS job that opens, it’s a safe bet Sumlin is going to be mentioned. He has a 35-16 record in four seasons at Houston and a chance to earn a BCS bowl trip with a win over Southern Miss. In addition to his current position, Sumlin made stops as an assistant at Purdue, Minnesota, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. There are few (if any) holes in Sumlin’s resume and he will be one of the most-sought after coaches on the market this offseason. He is believed to be near the top of Arizona State’s wish list, but it will have competition from Kansas, Illinois, North Carolina and Ole Miss.
Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Tennessee – Wilcox has made a quick rise through the coaching ranks over the last 10 years. He worked under Jeff Tedford as California’s linebacker coach from 2003-2005, before jumping to become Boise State’s defensive coordinator from 2006-09. Wilcox left the West Coast to become Derek Dooley’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee before the 2010 season. The Volunteers struggled on defense last year, finishing 69th nationally in total defense. However, Tennessee finished 2011 ranked 28th nationally in total defense and allowed 22.6 points a game. Wilcox played at Oregon, so he is familiar with the Pac-12. He has no head coaching experience, but is due for a shot in the next few seasons.
By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on Twitter)
Post-Week 13 Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Michigan State (10-2, 7-1) – Finally, the Spartans can look ahead to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. After handling the Northwestern Wildcats 31-17 for their 10th win of the season, Michigan State sets its sights on the Big Ten's version of "The Rematch." The Spartans and Badgers were clearly the top two teams in the conference this season as the two played the best game of the season back on October 22. The Kirk Cousins' game-winning Hail Mary toss to Keith Nichol was arguably the biggest scoring strike of his school-record 62 career touchdown passes. Sparty carries the Big Ten's No. 1 rushing defense, No. 1 total defense and the league's best pass rush (No. 1 at 3.08 sacks per game) into Lucas Oil Field Saturday night against what is probably the nation's top offensive line. The winner goes to the Rose Bowl to face Oregon, while the loser could fall past Michigan and Nebraska to the Outback Bowl.
2. Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) – The Badgers were the most impressive team in the Big Ten conference this season, and after a 45-7 win over Penn State on Saturday, will have a chance to prove it in its rematch with Michigan State. The nation's leading passer, leading scorer and leading punt returner will enter the Oil Drum in Indy with revenge on the mind — and they could be tough to stop. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball leads the nation in scoring (17.0 ppg) and is second in the nation in rushing (1,622 yards). His 34 touchdowns trail only Barry Sanders' 39 on the all-time NCAA list and part of the reason UW lost to Michigan State in October was due to his absence (Ball missed most of the second and third quarters). The 220 yards rushing posted by the Badgers in East Lansing was the season-high allowed by the Big Ten's top rush defense. The win gave the Badgers their fifth 10-win season in seven years.
3. Michigan (10-2, 6-2) – The monkey is officially off the Maize and Blue backs. In the best rivalry game in college football, Michigan and Ohio State played one of the most exciting football games of the year. The Wolverines topped the Buckeyes 40-34 in a game that featured six lead changes and the two most athletic quarterbacks in the nation. Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller offered fans a potential glimpse of the 2012 Big Ten title game by combining for 672 yards of total offense, eight total touchdowns and only one turnover. The win for Brady Hoke likely landed Michigan an at-large BCS bowl bid and its first triumph over rival OSU in eight years. Most importantly, however, is that the Wolverines finished No. 2 in the Big Ten in rush defense (129.1 ypg) and ninth nationlly in scoring defense (17.2 ppg). It is one of the more remarkable defensive turnaronds in recent memory. The Sugar Bowl against an unbeaten Houston Cougars team appears to be the most likely holiday destination for Michigan.
4. Nebraska (9-3, 5-3) – A new rivarly was born when Nebraska toppled Iowa 20-7 in the final game of the regular season on Friday. The Huskers ran for 222 yards on 61 carries — Rex Burkhead getting a school-record 38 of those attempts and 160 of those yards — and held the ball for 37:47 minutes of possession. Meanwhile, the defense held Marcus Coker under 100 yards for only the second time in seven games. Burkhead ended his first season as the starter second in the Big Ten in rushing attempts (261) and third in yards (1,268). Nebraska finishes its first Big Ten season above .500 and will visit Florida this bowl season. It should land in either the Cap One or Outback Bowl, with the smart money on Orlando and the Cap One Bowl.
5. Penn State (9-3, 6-2) – The Nittany Lions have had a nightmarish last couple of weeks and it ended with a 45-7 thumping at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers. With a chance to win the Big Ten Leaders Division, Penn State showed just how far it has left to climb to reach the championship plateau. Penn State was outgained 450 to 233, completed just 11 of its 25 passes, went 4-15 on third and fourth down conversions, turned the ball over four times (to UW's one) and kept the football for a mere 21:43 minutes of possession. The loss drops PSU in the bowl pecking order, and with the radioactivity emanating from Happy Valley, a bowl selection commitees might be hesitant to tab the Lions. Look for the Nits to fall no lower than the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas — and for the coaching search to reach a rolling boil very shortly.
6. Ohio State (6-6, 3-5) – Did any Buckeyes fan really notice the football game in Ann Arbor this weekend? Fans are already pointing to what could be a special 2012 team as its new head coach Urban Meyer was officially presented to Scarlet and Gray nation on Monday afternoon. With Braxton Miller and a host of talented defenders returning, Ohio State is your likely preseason pick to win the Leaders Division in 2012. Miller finished the final five games of the season with 452 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground to match his developing passing game (450 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT over his last three games). The 6-6 record was the first non-winning season for OSU since 1999 and it appears the Buckeyes are headed for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
7. Iowa (7-5, 4-4) – With the 20-7 loss to Nebraska last weekend, the Hawkeyes ended the 2011 campaign with three losses in five games. Despite having the league's No. 2 rusher in Marcus Coker, the Hawkeyes finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing offense. There are plenty of bright spots, however, as Marvin McNutt led the Big Ten in receiving (105.8 yards per game) and set school receiving touchdown records for a career and season. Additionally, James Vandenberg established himself as a playmaker for 2012. The seven win season again proves the dependability, yet mediocrity, of Kirk Ferentz' tenure at Iowa. It was the sixth time in seven years in which the Hawkeyes finished the regular season between six and eight wins and between four and six losses. Iowa looks to be headed to the Insight Bowl.
8. Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) – The Wildcats were no match for the focused Spartans as they lost 31-17 in the regular season finale. But Pat Fitzgerald's team will be bowling — likely the TicketCity Bowl — for the fourth time in his six-year tenure as head coach. In fact, Fitzgerald owns four of the school's ten total postseason apperances. Look for the Big Ten's top-rated passing offense to take full advantage of whichever Big 12 defense it faces in the TicketCity Bowl.
10. Purdue (6-6, 4-4) – With the 33-25 win over Indiana, the Boilermakers became the 10th Big Ten to earn bowl eligibility in 2011. By winning the Old Oaken Bucket over its in-state rival, Purdue should be playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007. The Little Ceasrs Pizza Bowl on December 27 looks like the right fit — especially considering how unattrative Illinois looks at the moment (see below). The question still reamins: Did Danny Hope do enough to keep his job?
9. Illinois (6-6, 2-6) – One of the most epic collapes in NCAA history came to fruition when Illinois went into Minneapolis and laid one of the largest, smelliest Big Ten eggs in history. In an effort to avoid a six-game losing streak, the not-so-Fighting Illini mustered a pathetic 160 yards of total offense, convereted on 2-of-15 third downs, rushed for 2.6 yards per carry and waited until they were down 27-0 before scoring any points against Minnesota. It turns out, the 27-7 loss to the Gophers was the final straw for Illinois, who handed Ron Zook his walking papers shortly thereafter. After the 6-0 start, the Illini are still bowl eligible, but won't be very attractive to any bowl committee after the terrible showing this weekend, no head coach and a six-game losing streak.
11. Minnesota (3-9, 2-6) – Ron Zook doesn't deserve all of the credit for the atrocious showing of the Illini in the 27-7 loss to Minnesota this weekend. Jerry Kill and the Gophers get plenty of kudos for showing up with nothing to play for and controling the game from the get-go. Quarterback MarQueis Gray topped the 160 yard mark rushing for the second straight weekend and the third time this season as he carried 27 times for 167 yards and two scores to lead Minnesota. The Gophers won two of its last five games and showed marked improvement over the course of the season. Could things finally be looking up in the Twin Cities?
12. Indiana (1-11, 0-8) – Indiana lost the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket 33-25 to in-state rival Purdue. The Hoosiers are one of five teams in the nation who failed to win a conference game this season. Yet, if there is any silver lining, it is the development of the running game over the second half. Indiana averaged 118.8 yards rushing per game in the first six games. It posted an average of 203.2 yards per game on the ground over the second half. On defense, however, IU finished last in the Big Ten in rushing, passing efficiency, scoring and total defense. Kevin Wilson has his work cut out for him this offseason.
The 25 Greatest College Football Rivalries
Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Can a Toyota win a Cup race in 2007?
First, we need to take a look at the lineup:
Michael Waltrip Racing: Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann.
Bill Davis Racing: Dave Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield.
Team Red Bull: A.J. Allmendinger and Brian Vickers.
Throw out Jarrett, and we have six drivers who among them own zero Cup championships and 10 wins on the Nextel Cup circuit. Add in the fact that heading into the 2007 season, only Dave Blaney (by virtue of being in the top 35 in Owner’s Points) and Dale Jarrett (Past Champion’s Provisional) are guaranteed spots in the show. Take into account that Reutimann and Allmendinger are rookies with one career start between them, and you start to realize the mountain Toyota is climbing.
With the Car of Tomorrow becoming the Car of Today in March, the Toyota teams are not only building standard cars, but COTs as well. This issue alone is considered a full plate of work for an established team, much less start-ups.
The answer, however, is yes. Yes because anything can happen. Pack racing at Daytona and Talladega lends itself to being at the right place at the right time. Jarrett knows that better than anyone, as he won the 2005 UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega by acting as the caboose of the freight train until the race hit its final stage. DJ drafted to the front, nosed in front of Tony Stewart on the backstretch on the last lap and was the beneficiary of a multi-car accident that broke out behind him. NASCAR went to the loop data, and DJ, leading all of one lap, was declared the winner.
The most common way to steal a win is by winning a fuel mileage battle. We can cite BDR pilot Jeremy Mayfield on this one. Running mid-pack all afternoon in the 2005 GFS Marketplace 500 from Michigan, Mayfield and crew decided to take the fuel gamble as the laps wound down. Mayfield was able to stretch it, leading the final six laps for his lone victory of the season.
The larger problem these teams face is just getting in the show. As mentioned before, only Blaney and Jarrett are guaranteed spots, and for Blaney, only for the first five races. Don’t be surprised to see three or four Toyotas miss races on a weekly basis. When cars don’t make the show, sponsorship dries up. And without sponsorship, teams cease to exist.
2. Did Brian Vickers wreck Jimmie Johnson at Talladega on purpose?
Kurt Busch, who probably had the best seat in the house, said it best: “He had every intention of helping his teammate. It just didn’t turn out that way.”
No. Vickers, although on his way out at Hendrick and already on Jeff Gordon’s bad side from hard racing at New Hampshire, was doing what he is supposed to do: Going for the race win.
Vickers said as much in the post-race interview.
“If I would have not touched him and laid off of him, we would have finished 1-2-3, Junior, Jimmie and me,” Vickers said. “I apologize. That is the last thing I want to do is to get into Jimmie. But when the 8 chopped him, and Jimmie swerved, I just got him.”
Since we imagine Junior is second only to Bear Bryant in terms of popularity in the state of Alabama and that Vickers will be driving a Toyota — a make we can’t imagine the Talladega fans cheering for in the first place — it’s assured Vickers will be hearing about this one for years.
3. Will the Car of Tomorrow be accepted?
Well, it’s not off to a good start, that’s for sure.
The major issue with the fans is that the look of the car itself is heinous; it is a shoebox with a wing on the back. Come to think of it, that’s what most of the drivers think, too.
Drivers, team members and owners have been warned about negative comments directed at the car, but our guess is the first driver to bust a splitter at Bristol is going to go ballistic, and as is usually the case, the media will run with it.
So no, the car has not been and most likely will not be accepted. But the fact is, no one has a choice. This has been NASCAR’s baby for three years, and they are going to proceed regardless of what anyone — fans, drivers, owners — think.
The shame of the situation is that NASCAR wants you to believe this is only about safety. And no one has a problem with that; every fan, driver and owner will say that safer is better. But the safety features included on the COT could be implemented on a standard stock car.
NASCAR’s underlying agenda is to level the playing field. With an IROC car, they can take that dream one step closer to reality. What was supposed to be a cost-cutting measure — the idea being that teams did not have to build cars for different types of tracks — has become a money pit. Owners are spending hand over fist to keep up with an ever-changing, NASCAR-mandated template.
We believe this is one of the biggest mistakes NASCAR has ever made. The gap between the haves and have-nots will widen to the point where four, five, maybe six owners will own the entire field.
In the end, what the car was supposed to do — encourage new ownership because the sport is more affordable — will do just the opposite. The rich will get richer and the poor will watch from the grandstands.
4. What’s wrong at Penske Racing South?
Roger Penske has engineered an impressive 55 career wins in 23 years of competition on the Cup circuit, but Rusty Wallace’s glory years of the mid- to late-1990s have passed.
Although Wallace was not as competitive in his final few years, he did act as a stabilizing force within the organization. However, dating back to the late 1990s, personality conflicts with the drivers plagued the organization. Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield never truly saw eye-to-eye, nor did they play team ball. When Ryan Newman was brought in in 2002, the same problems were evident.
To prove that Wallace was not solely at fault, we now have Newman and Kurt Busch filling the seats of Penske machines with the same problems. It seems Mr. Penske is not a good matchmaker. While it’s always tough to tell how two drivers and/or teams will jell, at some point the owner has to sit down with the parties and iron things out. It’s apparent this has not been done.
Also an issue is the fact that Penske remains a two-car team. In a day when three-, four- and five-car organizations bag all the race trophies and championships, Penske Racing South has held fast to its two-car setup. Whether they got burned with the Brendan Gaughan experiment or just don’t feel the overriding need to expand, results have not been forthcoming in the last three years.
The organization needs to make wholesale changes or risk becoming an also-ran. One of the brighter minds in the garage — Matt Borland — has already defected. They can’t afford to lose any more like him. Management, philosophy and strategy are problems that start at the top.
5. Can women compete in NASCAR?
“There has been a big change in reaction to me. The hostility has cooled down quite a bit. I think the worst is over. The initial reaction to me was one of a lack of respect. What you really need is endurance. And some tests show that women have more endurance then men. But that’s not the point. I’m not trying to establish the superiority of one sex over another. I’m a good driver, but no superwoman. What I’m trying to emphasize is that a driver is primarily a person, not a man or a woman, and that a great deal of driving is mental. You cannot afford to get angry behind the wheel. A good driver needs emotional detachment, concentration, good judgment, and desire.”
— Janet Guthrie in an interview with The Sporting News, July 1, 1978
Janet Guthrie is arguably the greatest female racer NASCAR has seen. In 33 career starts from 1976-1980, she posted five top-10 finishes. Her words above ring just as true today as in 1978, when she competed in seven of the circuit’s 30 events.
The fact of the matter is that there are no women competing at higher levels of racing currently aspiring to make the jump into Nextel Cup racing who are good enough to do so.
Danica Patrick’s media-play last season was done in order to land more money in her new IRL contract. She has no interest in a jump to NASCAR and, in all honesty, would probably be the best female on the radar for a job.
Shawna Robinson gave it a go in Cup racing, competing in eight events in 2001-02. Deborah Renshaw participated in 38 Craftsman Truck Series races in 2004-05, and in her case it was a “Pay-to-Ride.” Erin Crocker has made 37 CTS and Busch Series starts over the last two seasons and, well, we’ll get to Ms. Crocker later in the feature.
The point is, this a performance-based sport and thus far, none of the woman trying to make it to Nextel Cup competition has proven worthy enough to get there.
The true question is not whether a woman can compete; it’s have we found a woman who can? So far, we have not, but she is out there somewhere.
6. Can Juan Pablo Montoya win on the Nextel Cup circuit?
Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. It’s safe to say, however, that it may take some time. Montoya is employed by one of the weaker organizations in the business. Both his teammates were rookies in 2006 who combined for one top 5 and five top 10s (all by Reed Sorenson). A veteran teammate would go a long way in making Montoya’s transition a smoother one.
Former driver Rusty Wallace was approached about serving in a driver-coach role for the Colombian, but his network duties prevented him from doing so.
The two events where JPM could realistically shoot for a win are the road courses at Infineon and Watkins Glen. Of course, the heavier stock cars that lack the technology of an F1 car will take a while to master. They will seem sluggish and awkward, but Montoya, like any great driver, will adapt.
Montoya’s first visit to Bristol will be worth watching. They’ll more than likely peel him out of the car a la Cole Trickle. If he can make it out of Thunder Valley with a lead-lap finish, his stock will shoot through the roof.
It will also take his fellow drivers a while to fully trust him, especially at Daytona and Talladega. Until they learn his style, he will be treated like any other rookie.
The odds are against Montoya this year, but he is a special driver. The odds are long that he scores a win, but in the event he does, it will make international news.
7. If not for the “personal relationship,” would Erin Crocker still have a job?
We don’t think so. In a world where winning is everything, poor performance is a ticket to the unemployment line. Crocker’s on-track performance has been mediocre at best.
Crocker was tabbed as the first woman to break through into the Cup ranks and be successful. It was a welcome thought. Driving for Evernham Motorsports in ARCA, Busch and Truck races, she was on a fast track that many have used to reach the Cup Series.
It was common knowledge in the garage that team owner Ray Evernham and Crocker were dating. But it wasn’t until months later that the cat was let out of the bag for the public’s prying eyes. In court proceedings between Jeremy Mayfield and Evernham Motorsports, Mayfield claimed Evernham’s “close personal relationship” with Crocker led to the downfall of his team and ultimate dismissal.
We wonder, though, if Crocker would still have the ride after the performance of the last two years. In 10 Busch starts in that time she has averaged a 31.1-place finish and a 26.7-place finish in 27 Truck starts. Not exactly contender material. In fact, just last season, Mark McFarland and Burney Lamar were dismissed in midseason from their Busch rides with better numbers.
In her defense, there have been superstars who struggled in their early years. A young kid named Jeff Gordon kept the fab shop busy his first year, and Kasey Kahne was horrible in his first year in the Busch Series.
Crocker has left a trail of dented cars and bruised egos in the last couple of years. Would a male driver hired by Evernham still have the ride with the same results? Answer that one yourself.
8. Did Jeremy Mayfield hit the wall on purpose at Indy?
Popular opinion says yes, but only Jeremy knows for sure.
This is part of a larger question about the drivers and their agendas. Will a competitor in the sport lay down in a lame-duck situation, hurting the team’s standings, or try to purposely get fired for poor performance? That was the accusation by Ray Evernham in documents when Mayfield filed a lawsuit to block his termination and gain compensation upon his dismissal.
At Pocono, Mayfield was accused of pitting due to a non-existent flat tire. The following weekend at Indy there were bets in the garage before the green flag fell that he would do something to retire the car. His relationship with Ray Evernham was heading south in a rapid descent, and speculation was that Mayfield was trying to get the car outside of the top 35 in Owner’s Points.
His wife, Shana, had even been quoted by a member of Mayfield’s team as saying, “...he better not have that that car in the top 35 at the end of the season.” What was already a testy situation was quickly becoming ugly.
Mayfield already had the reputation of a malcontent. He fussed and argued himself out of Roger Penske’s Mobil 1 team to find a home with Evernham. Once that did not work out, he pulled the same stunt with EMS and will now move on to Bill Davis Racing.
If Mayfield wrecked the car on purpose, as some believe he did, why would another team owner hire him? This is a harsh indictment, as maybe the wall slap was just coincidence, the ill effect of a bad-handling racecar. The tag of ‘bad teammate’ seems to follow Mayfield, and incidents like these don’t help his reputation.
9. Why did NBC leave NASCAR?
This one is pretty cut-and-dried. As always, it boiled down to money. NBC split half of NASCAR’s 36-race schedule with FOX as part of a six-year, $2.8 billion deal that began in 2001. The rights fees to broadcast NASCAR events were too high to recoup with advertising revenue. Even with the hottest sport going, NBC could not generate returns that justified the investment.
Now, with a ratings dip that has become alarmingly apparent — although some would place the blame on NBC’s lack of promotion — it has become more difficult to sell the ad time needed to break even.
Some might say NBC was sold a bill of goods. Everyone deserves a profit, but NASCAR cares only about NASCAR. When a big-name sponsor came on board in the series, they were ‘asked’ to sponsor a race, a contingency award, etc. on top of the car or event they initially signed on for. The cost of fulfilling NASCAR’s sponsorship requests prevented some sponsors from buying commercial time. So when NBC got a chance to sign up with the NFL, they dumped racing in a heartbeat for the proven gridiron winner.
It made no sense for NBC to continue losing dollars, and the fault lies with NASCAR for demanding astronomical rights fees.
The new deal NASCAR inked this past season will split its schedule among four networks for eight years. ABC, ESPN, FOX and TNT will collectively pony up $4.8 billion.
10. What really happened at Robert Yates Racing?
When two winning drivers leave an organization in the span of a year, something is amiss. Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler both left the company for greener pastures, leaving Robert Yates scrambling to fill seats.
It seems Yates is simply burned out. He handed over a large portion of the day-to-day management of the company to others, and a sharp decline ensued. The team has gone from contender to mid-packer in no time.
The Yates teams use the same engines as Roush Racing, proving engine reliability and horsepower are not the problems. Rather, engineering shortcomings and aero deficiencies have doomed the team.
Also holding the team back is the two-car structure currently in place. Two-car teams are quickly becoming obsolete as DEI, Joe Gibbs and Ray Evernham will tell you. However, a third team cannot be formed without the financial resources a primary sponsor will provide. The vicious cycle is apparent when one realizes that performance is what attracts the sponsors in the first place.
Having an unproven driver step into one of the most recognized cars on the circuit will not help matters in the short term, either. David Gilliland was called upon to fill the seat left vacant by Sadler when he jumped on board at Evernham Motorsports in August of 2006. Gilliland scored the upset win of the decade in the Busch Series last year. Driving an unsponsored, home-built car, he drove to victory at Kentucky Speedway. Yates offered him a job in spite of his 30th-place finishing average on the Busch and Truck circuits in 12 races over the last two seasons.
The coup of the offseason was Yates signing on veteran Cup driver Ricky Rudd. Rudd drove for the team in 2001 and 2002, recording three victories and finishing as high as fourth in the ’01 Cup standings.
Yates took a step in the right direction when he lured Rudd out of retirement, but the hill they have to climb remains a steep one. A strong management structure and a new approach to attracting sponsors are required for this once-proud organization to regain its spot among the sport’s elite.
11. Is the allure of NASCAR ruining open-wheel racing in America?
The success — or lack thereof, whichever the case may be — of A.J. Allmendinger will go a long way in determining how healthy open-wheel racing remains.
Allmendinger was Champ Car’s next big thing, and America’s only true star in the sport. With his defection, interest in the Champ Car Series will most likely be at an all-time low.
Of course, Allmendinger is not the only open-wheeler to make the jump. Some of the more successful names include Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart. As children they dreamed of winning the Indianapolis 500. As professionals, they realized quickly that the big money was in stock cars.
Defending IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. jumped into a Roger Penske Dodge for two races in the Busch Series last year. To have another series’ defending champion looking to pack up ship and trade in a front wing for fenders is almost unheard-of. That in itself makes a statement about the state of professional open-wheel racing in America.
Juan Pablo Montoya will have the world watching him this season as he makes the transition to stocks. While Formula 1 is in fine shape with or without Montoya, American open-wheelers will learn that international attention is no longer focused on the IRL and CART. His appeal alone will make race fans in South America and Europe sit up and take notice that Daytona has surpassed Indianapolis in American auto racing.
IRL and CART were in trouble before Allmendinger, Hornish and Montoya decided to rub fenders. If they find success in a stock car, and an another established star — Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves — makes the jump in the next year or two, expect another wave of open-wheel drivers to land in NASCAR.
12. Why can’t Jamie McMurray compete?
Jamie McMurray was touted as one of the next big stars after his shocking win at Lowe’s in 2002. Driving for an injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray, in his second career start, pulled off a huge upset win.
He found minor success in 2003, ’04 and ’05. Although he did not record any more wins, he finished 13th, 11th and 12th in the points standings. His best season was ’04, when he posted 23 top-10 runs. The hot commodity he was at the time — young, good-looking, media-friendly — earned him big bucks when Jack Roush came calling in 2005. After a nasty contract dispute that resulted in McMurray being freed from his then-current deal with Chip Ganassi, he jumped in a Roush Racing Fusion and hasn’t been heard from since.
McMurray has the same equipment and engines as the other Roush teams, but the results are nowhere near the same. McMurray fails to allow the crew chief to do his duty, trying to make the calls himself, which results in horrible finishes. New pit boss — his fourth in a little over one season — Larry Carter had to deal with the same circumstances when he served as Rusty Wallace’s crew chief. If Carter learned from that experience, he may be able to straighten McMurray out.
In the meantime, McMurray is on thin ice with the Cat in the Hat. It is time for him to step up or rumors about changes, and this time not in the crew chief, will flare up.
At least rookie David Ragan gives McMurray a chance to move up to the fourth-best Roush team.
13. Why are the TV ratings slumping and the events having trouble selling tickets?
This one is going to hurt. There are several issues that bring us to the decline, starting with ticket sales.
For the spring Atlanta event in 2007 the cheapest grandstand seat costs $60. For a family of four, that’s $240 just to walk in the gate. Throw in a souvenir, a hot dog and a couple Cokes, and suddenly it’s at least a $300 day.
The hotels are who really gouge the fans. People staying anywhere near the track have to buy a three-night minimum at an escalated price. One hotel we contacted raised rates to $125 a night, up from $55.
Another reason for both slumping ratings and slow ticket sales is the on-track product. When aerodynamics overcame horsepower and driver skill, the sport took a downturn. The sport has always fought the shallow-minded assertion that racing is just cars going around in circles. Unfortunately, that is exactly what it has become at many tracks. Did anyone catch the California race last February? If you claim to have watched that snoozer from beginning to end, you’re flat-out lying.
Finally, the drivers themselves have become vanilla. Occasionally Tony Stewart will say or do something that harks back to a time when drivers weren’t concerned that they would offend a sponsor, or worse, upset NASCAR and get some ultimatums thrown their way. They walk the company line because they realize, regardless of their on-track performance, that if they say or do the wrong thing they’ll lose the ride.
We believe this is one reason for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity. He attracts the “Bubba Fan” that NASCAR wants so desperately to shake. With a beer sponsor, a southern drawl and an everyman personality, Junior is not seen as a spokesman chosen to represent the company. He’s a racecar driver hell-bent on winning.
Add the Car of Tomorrow and Toyota to the mix in 2007, and the popularity could continue its downward spiral. It seems the sport’s popularity with the Johnny-come-lately fan is fading. The question then is whether there are any traditional fans left.
Or have they gone the way of Wilkesboro?
Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
In the drivers’ meeting prior to the Pepsi 400 at Daytona on July 1, 2006, the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, called the President of NASCAR “Big Mike” (Helton) and said he’d heard that what goes on in the Nextel Cup hauler “is sometimes more exciting than what happens in the race itself.”
Some would say a parallel could be made with the inner workings of the Bush White House. Cheney certainly meant his remark as a wry compliment.
Is NASCAR’s administration of Nextel Cup races sometimes marked by judgment calls that are subjective and capricious? The short answer is yes. A case can be made that circumstance is as crucial a factor as what actually happens. The rules seem to be influenced significantly by timing, the relative prominence of the competitors involved and the effect on the outcome.
On July 23, 2006, at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, the champion of the previous season, Tony Stewart, appeared to intentionally wreck rookie Clint Bowyer. Replays showed Stewart shaking his fist at Bowyer as his car bored into Bowyer’s. Stewart received nothing more than a one-lap penalty for aggressive driving. He wound up finishing seventh in the race. Bowyer wound up 41st, but the big loser was the racing equivalent of an innocent bystander. Carl Edwards watched the developing storm in front of him, but not closely enough to avoid the crash that resulted from it. Edwards placed 39th.
Later, during a caution period, Edwards’ mangled Ford drove up alongside Stewart’s Chevrolet. Edwards raised both hands, palms opened upward, in a gesture routinely translated as “what were you doing?” Stewart’s response was another gesture easily translated, though not in family publications. This so enraged Edwards that he rammed Stewart’s car on pit road.
None of this drew any punitive action from NASCAR officials.
This precedent failed to benefit driver Jeff Green on Sept. 9 in the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway. On lap 252 of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, Green tangled on-track with the eventual champion, Jimmie Johnson. Later Green retaliated. As in the case of Stewart at Pocono, Green’s ill will seemed obvious. Officials “parked” Green’s car, which is to say it wasn’t allowed back on the track.
Stewart was, at the time of the Pocono incident, a contender; Green, who wound up 28th in the point standings, wasn’t.
“In a perfect world, every car on the track is a number and not a person,” says NASCAR’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, Jim Hunter. “Every car should be judged as a number. The perception of how that goes down gets sort of interwoven with fans and people who have favorite drivers who are often reading something into something that isn’t really there.”
Hunter conceded that reputations invariably play a role, citing the example of the late baseball great Ted Williams, who is said to have rarely been called out on strikes because of his prodigious reputation.
“If he were any other player, that would be a third strike,” says Hunter. “The guys in the tower — Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton, John Darby, David Hoots and Steve O’Donnell — everybody tries to make the right decision. No matter what that decision is, it’s going to be met with some criticism, depending on what side of the fence you’re on. If a guy’s tires are really worn, there will be the claim that there’s a piece of debris in turn three, and they (the officials) have to respond and make a decision whether there is debris or there isn’t. Sometimes it winds up being a piece of aluminum or plastic or something.”
“NASCAR has a really tough job,” says Jeff Burton. “At the end of the day, if NASCAR penalizes someone every time they hit someone or spin someone out and somebody wrecks, then we become afraid to be aggressive. They walk a fine line. They’ve got to decide what is the line, and it’s tough. You can’t watch two cars and always know the whole story. I’m pleased that NASCAR does the best it can under a very tough situation. That’s the best way I can say it.
“I don’t think they always make the right call, but as challenging as the situation is that they’re trying to police — because they can’t always truly understand all the factors that go into driving a car and understand why this car caught that car at a certain place, all those things — they do a nice job of balancing that. … If you look at it as a whole and you look at how complex and difficult it is, I’m extremely pleased with what they do. I think the drivers are ultimately responsible. NASCAR is there to make us wish we did the right thing. It’s our responsibility to do the right thing.”
“Trust me,” adds Stewart, “NASCAR has a difficult job to do, and sometimes its decisions are hard to understand when you look at one particular incident. It can be frustrating — and it’s been frustrating to me, at times — but over the long haul, they’re fair. Sometimes what they do is hard to understand, but taken as a whole, they’ve got the best interests of everybody at heart.”
The seeming inconsistencies in NASCAR penalties have become more noticeable and controversial in recent years, but the management style is as old as the ruling body itself.
In NASCAR’s very first race, on June 19, 1949, on a three-quarter-mile dirt track near Charlotte, N.C., a driver from nearby Gastonia, Glenn Dunnaway, took the checkered flag, but the victory was overturned, officially because a wedge had been placed in the rear springs to stiffen them, but unofficially because NASCAR founder William H.G. France didn’t want a moonshiner winning his first race. The man declared the winner, Jim Roper, was from Halstead, Kan., and thus unlikely to have been a moonshiner.
Dunnaway died in 1964, but according to his son Harold, his father went to Big Bill France’s hotel room at the Alamo Plaza, told France that he had won the race and demanded his money. According to the driver’s son, France paid him in cash, though it was never publicly acknowledged.
Fast forward a little over a year, to Sept. 4, 1950. In the first Southern 500, winning driver Johnny Mantz was driving a car that won principally because its heavy-duty truck tires didn’t wear out like the car tires used by everyone else. What did the Ford driven in 1949 by Dunnaway have in common with the Plymouth driven in 1950 by Mantz? In both cases, the listed owner was Hubert Westmoreland. In 1950, however, Mantz’s car was actually co-owned by three men: Westmoreland, NASCAR starter and flagman Alvin Hawkins and William H.G. France. After the race, NASCAR’s chief inspector declared the winning car illegal (they didn’t know about the word “unapproved” in those days, obviously) because of the truck tires. France fired the inspector, and the victory stood.
Examples from the 2006 season were numerous. Here are just a few:
• At Bristol, on March 26, Robby Gordon felt he had been penalized unfairly involving a so-called “commitment-line” violation entering pit road, so he expressed his opinion. NASCAR officials promptly held him in the pits for a lap “so he could cool down.”
Gordon’s language was mild compared to an outburst by Greg Biffle after he was penalized for speeding on pit road in the same race.
“I want to know where in the rulebook it says I can’t voice my opinion,” says Gordon, who was penalized a second time for an alleged “similar infraction” later in the race. He wasn’t, however, penalized for chewing gum, even though he admitted he didn’t have enough for the whole class.
• Perhaps the season’s most controversial event was the four-race suspension of crew chief Chad Knaus, who ended up winning the Nextel Cup championship with driver Jimmie Johnson, prior to the Daytona 500. No points were deducted from either Johnson’s driver or owner points.
What has been somewhat overlooked since was the fact that another team, Hall of Fame Racing and driver Terry Labonte, received 25-point deductions for a violation at almost the same time. Why would NASCAR officials penalize one team, but not another, in this manner for a similar violation? The official explanation, which seemed a bit contrived, was that Hall of Fame Motorsports had used a part that was clearly illegal, while in the case of Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson and Knaus), legal parts were used to achieve an illegal result.
Twenty-five points taken away from Terry Labonte meant very little as a practical matter, since Labonte did not intend to run the full schedule. Johnson wound up winning the championship by a 56-point margin.
• At the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (Charlotte) on May 26, Jeremy Mayfield’s Dodge flunked post-race inspection. Crew chief Chris Andrews received a $35,000 fine, and Mayfield and owner Ray Evernham had 25 points taken away. That violation wasn’t publicly divulged on the night it occurred. Officials never acknowledged the violation had even occurred until two days afterward, though there were reports in the garage that something was amiss.
• After the same race, Kyle Busch received a $50,000 fine and a loss of 25 points for a tantrum in which he threw his HANS device, a safety apparatus, at another driver he blamed for a crash.
• On Sept. 17 at New Hampshire, a television report, aired on Speed TV, alleged that officials had discovered something wrong with the winning car of Kevin Harvick. NASCAR officials never acknowledged that any violation had occurred, but the controversy prompted owner Richard Childress to issue a statement a week later:
“Reports in the media, specifically on Speed TV, that one or more of our Nextel Cup Series teams was found by NASCAR to be manipulating the rules … at New Hampshire International Speedway, are false and misleading. Our cars passed post-race inspection, and officials at NASCAR assured us … that no one from RCR was told at any time not to bring a part back to the race track. The reported events and conversations did not happen.”
“If you put credence in that story, in that notion, then NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing are in a conspiracy against everyone else in the sport,” says Burton, another of Childress’s drivers.
• An infrequent competitor, Ted Christopher, began that same New Hampshire race, the first in the Chase, sitting in his Chevy on pit road. NASCAR officials held him there because his spotter did not show up for duties. They wouldn’t let him onto the track until a spotter appeared. Eventually Christopher joined the fray four laps behind.
The reason for the spotter’s absence was an electrical outage at the track. The race began with NASCAR’s timing-and-scoring apparatus running only by emergency generators. The spotter was trapped in an elevator en route to the spotters’ stand.
Would such a costly penalty have been issued one of the championship contenders, or even a regular driver from a prominent team? Very unlikely.
• Pocono wasn’t the only venue where 2005 champion Stewart got a break. Officials failed to punish him for an apparent mistake early in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas on March 12.
At the drivers’ meeting, officials had warned drivers that they had to enter pit road to the inside of an orange cone placed at the entrance. After Ryan Newman’s crash on lap 91 brought out a caution flag, Stewart, running second at the time, hit that very cone as he trailed Mark Martin into the pits.
Inexplicably, no penalty was assessed. A television report offered the explanation that Stewart wasn’t punished because the cone wasn’t in its approved place atop a yellow line defining the pit entrance.
Had the same mistake been made by, say, Chad Chaffin, there almost certainly would’ve been a penalty.
• Also at New Hampshire, this time in July, the crew of driver Scott Riggs changed a transmission before qualifying. Officials decreed that Riggs, whose qualifying run was 23rd-fastest, had to start at the back of the field.
At Pocono a week later, Johnson crashed his car in practice and had to use an entirely different car in qualifying. He did not have to start at the back of the field, but rather 15th. Johnson went on to finish sixth in the Pennsylvania 500.
According to Cup series director John Darby, Riggs’ penalty was due to the fact that his team changed a component “within the same car” and Johnson would face no penalty because his team switched to an entirely new car.
“If teams weren’t able to change things in a backup car,” says Darby, “it would force all teams to bring two completely brand-new, race-ready cars.”
Almost all the teams, of course, do that anyway.
• Robby Gordon, seen by some as a whipping boy of NASCAR’s, received a $15,000 fine — and a loss of 50 points — for allegedly hurling a piece of roll-cage foam out the window of his Chevrolet during an Atlanta race on Oct. 29.
Gordon was apparently trying to bring out a caution flag for debris in a desperate attempt to pit without losing a lap. Gordon’s car had suffered unexpected tire failure.
On the other hand, it is widely believed that NASCAR officials themselves use the occasional “debris caution” to prop up competition and give a break to prominent drivers.
Debris cautions seldom occur at tracks like Darlington and Bristol, this in spite of the fact that the narrow racing grooves are almost always full of all sorts of clutter. Watching the field roar through the tight turns at those tracks reveals roiling clouds of rubber, grit and gosh knows what else. Oil-soaked pimento cheese, perhaps.
For some reason, the wide-open tracks like Michigan and California, which also happen to be tracks where the leader tends to run away from the field, are presumably laden with dangerous debris that’s often spotted by NASCAR officials at precisely the point at which the lead exceeds, say, three seconds, and the field is almost evenly distributed around the track.
On Sept. 4, at California Speedway, out of seven caution flags, four were for debris or oil on the track. At Bristol on Aug. 26, debris was cited in one out of 10 caution periods. On March 26, debris figured in two of the 18 cautions at the same track.
Few knowledgeable observers would dispute the notion that NASCAR artificially manipulates the competition in such a manner on a fairly regular basis, although officials have never admitted that.
“People tend to believe we throw a caution to bunch up the field,” says Hunter. “The overall philosophy is to be safe instead of sorry. If we throw a caution when we don’t really need one, if there’s any doubt, we’re going to throw the caution. In my opinion, people can’t argue with that. Is that steel or plastic? Sometimes we don’t know what it is, but if it’s in the groove or just outside, we throw the caution. If you’re in the sport long enough, some of those calls will go for you and some will go against you.
“The officials do the best job they can and let the chips fall where they may. Today you’re on the wrong end; next week you might be on the right end. In the end, I think, regarding the ability to officiate the races, it’s the responsibility or prerogative of the competitors to put pressure on NASCAR if they feel the officials are not doing a good job. Our competitors don’t hesitate to do that, sometimes rightly so and sometimes because of how it may have affected an individual. … Our officials are human. In the end, they’ve got to make more good calls than bad calls. If they didn’t … then we’d have a problem.”
NASCAR’s stewardship of the sport has changed in at least 1,000 ways — one of which is that victories are never overturned anymore as occurred frequently in the early years — but in at least 100 ways, it remains exactly the same. In a sport that cries out for at least 1,000 rules, NASCAR insists on 100, at most, and there is really only one that matters.
What NASCAR says goes.
“This sport has a tremendous amount of things that aren’t in writing,” says Burton. “They’re in your head or someone else’s head, but people have differing opinions about what is acceptable. The harder that you run and the more aggressive you are, your code is going to be different than another guy. That’s just how it is.
“In a sense, you can’t expect NASCAR to judge everyone on the basis of everything being completely equal because nobody else does that, either.”
Harvick still has his doubts.
“I think it’s a matter of what mood they’re in when they’re sitting in the booth that night, to be honest with you.”
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Benny Parsons won 21 races during a successful Cup career, but it is his voice, and not his driving, that is his calling card for today’s generation of race fans. Parsons has seen plenty of changes over his decades in the sport, and he has educated and entertained countless viewers with that smooth, friendly baritone voice. Athlon Sports’ Norm Partin and Matt Taliaferro sat down with one of the elder statesmen of racing’s broadcast booth to talk about Parsons’ memories of his time on the track and his thoughts about the sport he loves.
Athlon Sports: You are now involved on the TV side of the business, and looking back a few years ago when you got started in racing it was totally different. Can you relay that to the young guys that are coming into the sport?
Benny Parsons: Not really. It’s so much different today than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago, even 10 years ago. The cars are different, the tracks are different, everything that we do in NASCAR is just so much different. Twenty-five years ago you really needed a driver with experience, three or four years of experience before they could really do well. Newcomers just did not come in and win races. But in 2005 Kyle Busch came in and won two NEXTEL Cup races his first year.
AS: If we go back to 1964 at the Western North Carolina 500, Holman-Moody gave a shot to a young guy named Benny Parsons to do a one-race deal to try to get that ride. Can you give us an insight on that?
BP: Well, 1964 was a tough year for racing, because I guess they lost three or four drivers in 1964. Billy Wade was killed at Daytona, Fireball Roberts was killed in Charlotte, in the 600, and so Ford was looking around for young talent and I had run an ARCA race. I was only in my second year of racing, but I had run an ARCA race in Huntingdon, West Virginia and I was also running locally around the Detroit area, Mount Clemons Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway, and winning races there. Someone said, ‘Well, why don’t we give him a chance? He might be somebody good in stock car racing.’ So they sent me to Holman-Moody and put me in a car and took me to Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in Weaverville, North Carolina to run a race. They had another young guy up there, it was a tryout, and the one that did the best would get a ride to go on and run NASCAR racing. The other young man was Cale Yarborough.
AS: So you were part of the first Gong Show then, right?
BP: That’s right, it was the Gong Show at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.
AS: Then you came back several years later and started running with L.G. DeWitt and had some pretty immediate success.
BP: Well, yeah, we ran decently. As a matter of fact, the first race that I drove for him was Richmond, Virginia, the February race after Daytona, and we broke a gear that day, but we ran well enough to win the race, but we didn’t finish. We then went to Rockingham and ran decently and had a chance to win a race in Columbia, South Carolina that year, and we finally did get a victory in 1971. And that was South Boston.
AS: There is a story that you have told several times. Your team was broke, you were broke, and you finished third or fourth in Atlanta and won enough money to finish the season.
BP: Well, what had happened was L.G. DeWitt, the owner of the car, was involved in a very serious automobile crash and looked like he might die. When he lay in the hospital, his family, who were not big fans (of racing), said ‘Why don’t we quit the racing business because you can’t take care of it?’
He agreed with them, so he did quit racing. I think this was June of ’71. So what was I gonna do? I had moved my family to Ellerbe, North Carolina, and so Bill Donahoe from the Nashville Speedway, the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, called me and said if you’re not doing anything how about coming over and running Nashville on Saturday night. I think he paid my way and gave me three hundred bucks or something. So I did that for five or six weeks. Three hundred bucks was as much money as I was making back then. I survived and then about five or six weeks later L.G. got out of the hospital, he got back home and he missed that race car. He called me in his office and said, ‘I think I was a little hasty stopping racing. If you want to, let’s see if we can’t pick up the pieces and start off again.’ He also told me that he didn’t have any money or not a lot of money and to try and do the best we can.
AS: If you got in one of today’s cars, that would almost be a night and day difference, wouldn’t it?
BP: It really would. It’s amazing to me how much smarter or how much better the communication is. I’m not sure exactly how to explain this, but the drivers of today have to be so precise about what their car is doing. Going in the corner, the middle of the corner, coming off the corner. Back 25 years ago the sport was so clumsy as to being what it is today.
AS: Was it more of a banzai-type attitude, where you just got in and put the pedal to the floor and held on?
BP: It was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today. You know some of the drivers today that are really small might have struggled in those cars back then. As you said, you just got in and drove it. Back then the driver made up a lot. I mean, Richard Petty, he made up for a great deal by finding that new groove, that better groove that was faster, and today the cars are so precise that they run in the same place all the time. That’s why I love to see the cars go to Atlanta when the drivers have to move around on the race track to find that new groove and those cars are three wide. The drivers then — they got in it, and if the car wasn’t handling they had to adjust their style to make the car handle it.
AS: A crew chief told me that when he started racing, aero was an afterthought, and now it’s everything — that just one ding can take a car out of contention. Has that hurt the racing?
BP: I don’t want to be a guy that sticks his head in the mud and is against the cars getting better, but it is a shame. It really irritates me when those fenders get bent on pit road at 35 mph, and it eliminates a guy’s chance of winning. That’s really frustrating for me.
AS: In today’s sport, NASCAR is projecting rock ’n’ roll, younger/better. Do you see that the rock ’n’ roll thing is kind of leaving those of us that have been around a while behind?
BP: I think that NASCAR’s old-time fans, like myself, I think they got us. I think we’ve watched enough and we’re hooked. I think we are going to continue to watch, and I don’t think that they can go out and attract the young crowd today with — as much as I like bluegrass, as much as I like country music — I don’t think that they can attract the young crowd today with that environment. I think they’ve got to attract it with rock ’n’ roll and having young minds. That’s how they’re gonna be able to make this sport grow.
AS: Many fans complain that the racing isn’t that good anymore because of aero, but back in New Hampshire, Newman and Stewart put on a show during those last three laps.
BP: I’ve not really been a fan of New Hampshire, because it’s one of those racetracks we talked about, that you really need to run in the same position — same spot on the racetrack — every car needs to be in the same spot to go fast. I like the Homestead racetrack, with their variable banking. I don’t know why in the world Martinsville didn’t do that when they had the concrete come up. I don’t know, when they rebuilt the corners, why they didn’t put in two different bankings in the corners. I don’t understand why Loudon (New Hampshire) doesn’t do that. I don’t understand Kansas City and Chicago. I’m not a fan of Loudon because all of the cars have to run in the same spot. But that was terrific between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart.
AS: I remember qualifying in your day — it was nothing but white knuckles. What was it like when you did that, knowing that you were so close to the edge?
BP: Just terrifying. Qualifying at Daytona Beach back in the ’70s and ’80s was without a doubt the most terrifying thing that a driver did the entire season. Those two qualifying laps were absolutely unbelievable.
AS: We remember when Cale (Yarborough) in the 28 car had his qualifying — made the first lap, set the record, and second lap, car takes off like an airplane. When you’ve got to follow that, what’s the fear factor like at that level?
BP: Well, thank God, I think that I had finished with my qualifying lap when Cale did that. I surely would not have wanted to go out there after that. That’s like in a race that you’re in and you see a terrible, terrible crash and you feel like that the driver may be seriously injured or maybe even killed. And man, I tell you what, they throw that green flag again — man, that first lap’s hard!
AS: That’s part of the mental game in racing that some of the other sports can never, never understand. It’s hard to admit it at the time, but when it’s over, the holding your breath and shaking and white knuckles is pretty easy to talk about, isn’t it?
BP: Yeah, it really is. And you know, the adrenaline is just going wide open — those qualifying laps and running at Daytona back when the cars were unrestricted and you ran on the edge every doggone lap. I mean, the adrenaline was just unbelievable.
AS: I know winning the championship has to be the highlight — back in ’73 — and under the circumstances…
BP: No. No. No. That’s not it.
AS: That’s not it? So, what is it?
BP: Winning the Daytona 500. Because, you see, a championship in 1973 was 28 races long. So you go all year long running this championship, racing in this championship. And when it’s over (the final race of the season), that’s just 1/28 of the puzzle. A race, any race, is — when they wave the checkered flag, it’s over. And the Daytona 500 is the biggest stock car race that we have. And, you know, everybody’s heard of the Daytona 500 and everybody wants to win that.
AS: And the last few laps, I bet a lot of nights on your back under a race car and sleeping in the backseat trying to get to the next race — all that stuff flashed before you as you’re on those last few laps?
BP: Well, not right then. But that’s all I could think about afterwards. After the checkered flag waved and I’m in Victory Lane. And then, when you have time to sit down and say ‘I just won the Daytona 500,’ those are the things that you think about. You know, I started racing on a quarter-mile dirt track in a $50 car. Guy bought a car for $50 and gave it to me. Trust me, it’s a long way from that quarter-mile racetrack to Daytona Victory Lane.
AS: And the way that you won that, just taking the lead right there at the end. Was there any that were more exciting?
BP: The Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte — the race that Darrell (Waltrip) and I had in 1980.
AS: The record book says five lead changes in the last 25 laps. But that race was not over until actually the checker.
BP: Yeah. The last 75 laps, I think, we ran nose-to-tail. Stop, come back on the racetrack. It was a tire situation. They had had tire problems that day. So, the last stop that we both made we couldn’t change tires because we had a set on there that would live. And we knew we couldn’t put anything else on there, so we just fueled only on that last stop. So we came back out on the same place we left and just kept on racing.
AS: NBC has made the decision not to follow through after next year. Have you had a chance to figure out what Benny’s gonna do then, or are there opportunities with other people?
BP: We don’t have any idea.
AS: On TV, when you were putting your crew together, was there a philosophy meeting and a plan, or did it just happen?
BP: It just kind of happened. The only real plan … I remember two plans throughout the years in television. Back in the ’80s, driving and doing TV part-time, I was in North Wilkesboro doing a show for ESPN and the producers were going to do this and it seemed to me to be a highly technical piece. And I said ‘Well, shouldn’t we explain that better to the viewer? Will they understand what we’re talking about?’ And the producer said ‘We are doing this broadcast for the race fan. Let the novices catch up.’
AS: Yeah. That had to be an about-face, didn’t it?
BP: Yeah. And I said ‘Wow.’ And that really is the philosophy that ESPN had all along, was, you know, they did the races for the fans. And then, when I went to work for ESPN full-time in 1989, we went to Rockingham to do our first race and Neil Goldberg, the producer, had Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and myself. And he said ‘OK, now here’s what I want … I want Benny to bring some excitement – you know, yell and scream, and bring that excitement – to the broadcast. And Ned, you know, you’re the sensible guy. You keep everything in line and in shape.’ And so, that’s how Ned and I did the ESPN broadcast.
AS: How long did it take for you and Wally Dallenbach to develop your noticeable chemistry?
BP: I think it’s kind of like driving a race car. I think that it took some time to do the races together and understand what our roles were going to be and what have you.
AS: We all got a wake-up call at Phoenix with Kurt Busch. Obviously the TV people had to decide how to cover this. Did that create any issues for you as far as the TV end?
BP: No. No, it did not.
AS: You just report the facts?
BP: Yeah. Allen (Bestwick) went to talk to Kurt (Busch), (Bill) Weber reported and I don’t even know that I mentioned it.
AS: Is there time when a guy like Benny Parsons, one of the most respected people in the business, goes to a driver and puts his arm around him and says ‘Son, listen up a little bit’?
BP: Ahh. (long pause) I … Yeah I do. I do … to the drivers. But I don’t do it to someone of Kurt Busch’s stature. I mean, after all, he’s a Nextel Cup champion. If somebody is very, very young in their first year of the Busch (Series), or maybe even the first year of the Nextel Cup, and I see something that I think will help them, I’d go to them and I’d tell them ‘I think this’ll help you.’ But, as I said, Kurt is certainly old enough and has been around long enough that he knows right from wrong.
AS: Is there any driver on the circuit today that reminds you of yourself, when you were driving?
BP: The other day someone asked that question and I think I compared myself to say, Bobby Labonte. I think, you know, we raced a great deal the same.
AS: If you had a chance to run NASCAR for one day, what would be the first thing you’d do?
BP: Maybe limit the amount of cars on pit road. I think it’s just ridiculous that a guy can go out and race around Daytona and Talladega at 180 miles-per-hour, 190-miles-per-hour, three-wide, whatever, and he comes into the pit to make a pit stop at 55 miles-per-hour and gets eliminated. I think that’s stupid. I talked to a guy recently who had a suggestion. He said what we need to do is make Rockingham a dirt track and have a Nextel Cup dirt race. And I said, “You know what? That’s a fantastic idea.”
AS: Who’s the guy that you’re looking at right now that you can see being the top guy, or one of them, in five years?
BP: Carl Edwards, right now. If he could just … He has the ability on the racetrack; he has the personality to just become a huge, mega-star. I mean, he is the whole package. He’s a sponsor’s dream. He’s got that ‘Aw, gee-golly whiz.’
AS: In quick answers — So far the Chase has just finished its second year – success or not?
AS: The racing back to the yellow and the sensors in the track, has that worked or not?
BP: Yes. Very much so.
AS: Do you like the impound rule?
BP: I like the idea. But I don’t like it in its present form.
AS: Do we have too many races? 36 being too many?
AS: You want more, don’t you?
BP: Here’s the deal. The teams today, the top teams today, they’re out there each and every Sunday competing to win. They have enough people on their staff, their sponsor, they get enough money that everyone can have a day off. And most of them get a complete day off. And then for the road crew, Thursday becomes a travel day and most of those guys don’t leave until the afternoon. So they’ve got a half-day off Thursday. When we raced back in the ’70s, nobody had any days off, unless there wasn’t a race that weekend.
AS: You didn’t get to fly to many of them (the races), either.
BP: No, you had to drive. That’s when you got Saturday and Sunday off when they didn’t have a race. Well, now these guys – yes there are 38 weekends – but at least they get a couple of days off in the week. It is a lot of races. And the drivers, they don’t have to drive to the venues or the racetracks anymore. They jump in an airplane and go. They leave home Thursday, come back home Sunday night. And they don’t have to go to the shop and work on that thing 10-12 hours a day.
AS: You want to take a shot at predicting the 2006 champion?
BP: Tony Stewart.
AS: Is there anybody out there running in the lesser divisions that if you had a magic wand, you would want to put them in a 24 car, 20 car, 16 car, or something like that?
BP: No. Just as a spectator, watching the race, you don’t get to meet the personalities. You don’t get to go in and see what they’re made of, talk to them. And you can’t learn anything by just watching them on the racetrack. You can learn something if you know what the rest of the package is.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
Eli Manning’s New Orleans homecoming was spoiled by the Big Easy’s favorite quarterback. Brees completed 24-of-38 passes for 363 yards, four TDs and zero INTs, while scrambling for another score on the ground — after which the 6'0" passer attempted to dunk the ball over the goal post, settling instead for a finger-roll — during a 49–24 rout on Monday night.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
During a sloppy game in cold, rainy conditions played on a newly-sodded LP Field in Nashville, CJ proved to be a mudder. The much-maligned Johnson had 23 carries for a season-high 190 yards, his 27th career 100-yard performance and his best effort since Nov. 1, 2008 in a 23–17 victory over the Buccaneers. It was not a flawless effort by Johnson, who lost a fumble — one of nine combined turnovers on the day.
Beanie Wells, RB, Cardinals
Ottis Anderson, Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James and every running back in Cardinals history now trail Wells, who set a new franchise standard with 27 carries for a team-record 228 yards and one TD during a 23–20 win at St. Louis — the Cardinals’ hometown from 1960-87 before the team moved to Phoenix in 1988.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
The three-time Super Bowl champion was in rare form, even by his own lofty standards, in a 38–20 victory on the road against the Eagles in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX. Brady picked apart Philly’s vaunted secondary, completing 24-of-34 passes for 361 yards, three TDs — two to Wes Welker and one to Rob Gronkowski — and zero INTs in the win.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos
Superman continued his meteoric rise, improving to 5–1 as a starter this season following a 16–13 overtime win over the AFC West rival Chargers. Tebow completed 9-of-18 passes for 143 yards, one TD and zero INTs, while tucking the ball on 22 carries for 67 rushing yards. The polarizing lefty now has 11 total TDs and only two turnovers, while the Broncos remain alive in the division race despite their 1–4 start.
Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
As expected, the Harbaugh Bowl — the NFL’s first head-coaching matchup between brothers, the 49ers’ Jim and Ravens’ John — was a defensive battle between two of the top stop-units in the game. Baltimore outlasted San Francisco on Thanksgiving night, thanks in large part to a dominant performance by Suggs, who had three sacks and a forced fumble in a 16–6 win.
-by Braden Gall (follow him on twitter @AthlonBraden)
Urban Meyer is a proven commodity on the sidelines. His immaculate coaching record speaks for itself.
He is 104-23 overall and 7-1 in bowl games. He was MAC Coach of the Year his first season at Bowling Green (2001). He was Mountain West Coach of the Year in both of his two seasons at Utah – to go with two MWC championships and a BCS Bowl berth. And in six years in the SEC, Meyer's players won two BCS National Championships and one Heisman Trophy.
That’s a serious resume to be handing out at every checkpoint along the Ohio State recruiting trail. Sitting in living rooms all over the Midwest and Northeast, the new Buckeyes coach will bring with him as much clout as any head coach in the nation. More importantly, the Urban Meyer name rings across the fertile Southern recruiting grounds with volume and clarity.
“This is absolutely a home run hire for Ohio State,” 247Sports.com national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons told Athlon Sports. “I can’t imagine a better fit from a recruiting standpoint than Urban Meyer. He’s got name recognition nationally and a system that athletes love to play in.”
Simmons continued: “Ohio State has landed some great players out of the state of Florida, and that pipeline will only continue to grow under Meyer. He also has Ohio ties and understands the importance of building a wall around what is arguably the fourth-most talented state in the country.”
Meyer was a force on the recruiting trail with the budget and power of the mighty Florida Gators athletic department. His full classes at Florida (2006-2010) were the envy of nearly every program in the nation and included the 2007 and 2010 recruiting national championships — aka ranked as the No. 1 class in the nation by Athlon Sports. The Gators claimed the best class in the SEC three times in five years under Meyer.
Over the five-year span, Meyer signed 120 total players, 43 Athlon Consensus 100 prospects, 92 players from southern states and 70 from the state of Florida. To top it all off, he never lost his touch in the northeast, landing 13 players from the area including names like Joe Haden, Aaron Hernandez, Dominique Easley, Jordan Reed, Jelani Jenkins and Sharrif Floyd.
Here is a quick breakdown of his five full Florida classes:
2010: 28 total signees, 13 AC100
National Rank: No. 1, SEC Rank: No. 1
2009: 16 total signees, 5 AC100
National Rank: No. 9, SEC Rank: No. 4
2008: 22 total signees, 7 AC100
National Rank: No. 8, SEC Rank: No. 3
2007: 27 total signees, 12 AC100
National Rank: No. 1, SEC Rank: No. 1
2006: 27 total signees, 6 AC100
National Rank: No. 2, SEC Rank: No. 1
Ohio State has never had a problem attracting elite level talent, and the Buckeye brand has never been a tough sell for any coach who has worked on the banks of the Olentangy. But the brand image had taken a hit recently amidst tattoo-email cover-up scandals and booster payroll smudging. Anything and everything will become fodder for opposing coaches when it comes to recruiting, so a national title-winning head coach being forced to resign was easy pickings for rival Big Ten coaching staffs.
“Schools like Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska were able to come into the Buckeye State and pull players that Ohio State coveted,” BuckeyeGrove.com’s Kevin Noon told Athlon Sports. BuckeyeGrove.com is the officially licensed Rivals.com website covering Ohio State football recruiting.
“But when landing Urban Meyer seemed like more than a possibility, players began to show more interest,” Noon went on. “Before Meyer was hired it appeared that the Buckeyes were done with their 2012 recruiting effort with only a handful of kids left on the board. Now, with the new hire, all bets are off and Ohio State could clean up by flipping a few in-state kids and moving on some out-of-state talent.”
The impact of Meyer on OSU recruiting has already been felt. Athlon Consensus 100 defensive end Adolphus Washington even mentioned Meyer specifically in his announcement speech last Tuesday. Ohio State had 16 total commitments when it officially revealed that Urban Meyer would be the next head coach in the Horseshoe. With two hard months of recruiting left, Bucks fans can bet on The Ohio State University pulling a few upsets and luring a big name or two to Columbus en route to National Signing Day 2012.
Unfortunately for the rest of the Big Ten, it’s merely a warning shot across the bow as every recruiting coordinator in the league should be bracing for Meyer’s impact in 2013.
More Urban Meyer, Ohio State content:
Urban Meyer Will Win Big by Mitch Light
The search for the next Penn State head coach took an interesting turn over the weekend with the news that current Miami coach and former PSU player Al Golden signed a new four-year contract extension that stretches to February 2020. So where will the Nittany Lions turn now as they try to move away from the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal and the subsequent firing of Joe Paterno? Many around college football believe that Penn State will stay away from candidates with Paterno ties, but that may not be the case in the end. Interim coach Tom Bradley will get consideration, as will several coaches with PSU or state of Pennsylvania connections such as Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. Other top candidates will include Virginia’s Mike London, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, Houston’s Kevin Sumlin and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. The Big Ten’s Leaders division has had a year of scandals, and next season will look much different with new leadership at Ohio State (Urban Meyer), Penn State and Illinois.
Who is your favorite to be Penn State's next coach?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Until Al Golden signed his extension at Miami, I thought he had to be candidate No. 1. Now it appears to be a wide-open race. Interim coach Tom Bradley seems to have a decent shot of keeping the full-time gig, but I think the one to watch is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Although he’s raised the bar in Starkville, how much higher can he take the program in a brutal SEC West? Mullen may seem like a strange fit at first, but he is a Pennsylvania native and went to college in the state at Ursinus. If Penn State is willing to pay, Mullen would be a great hire. Outside of Mullen, not many names are jumping out as frontrunners for the job. The Nittany Lions would also be wise to take a look at Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, who I think is one of the most underrated coaches in college football.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
Since the contracts coaches and universities sign aren't really worth paper they are printed on, I would not be entirely shocked to see Al Golden coaching in Happy Valley next season. However, after some of that tricky "coach speak" with a reporter last week, all signs point to the Penn State alum staying in Coral Gables. And Greg Schiano recently told Sirius XM Radio that the only job he is interested in is Rutgers. That leaves Tom Bradley, Dan Mullen, Mike London, Kevin Sumlin, Kirk Ferentz and others as possible choices. Mullen appears to be the most ready and with deep ties to the Keystone State, would be a perfect fit in the region. He also removes himself from the brutal SEC West battleground and gets the opportunity to duke it out with mentor Urban Meyer every season in the Leaders Division. It may be too early to predict, but I will go with the Drexel Hill, Pa., native and Ursinus (Pa.) College grad to be coaching in State College next fall.
There is no clear-cut "favorite" for the next Penn State coach, in terms of an obvious hire who will certainly take the job — like Urban Meyer to Ohio State, for example. There are several good coaches with ties to Linebacker U., the question is whether any will take the job following the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent Joe Paterno firing? Miami coach Al Golden would be my top choice; but the former Penn State tight end just signed a four-year contract extension at the U. The best realistic candidate is Rutgers' Greg Schiano, a former Penn State assistant who has long been rumored to be JoePa's successor. Schiano has lost some luster of late and is no longer the red-hot national candidate he once was; but he is a proven commodity whose recruiting ties in New Jersey would be a natural fit at PSU. A flashier hire would be Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, who was born in Pennsylvania and would have a better chance to contend for a BCS bowl in the Big Ten than the SEC West. If the Nittany Lions take a few public rejections, they may fall back on a safety-net option like Connecticut's Paul Pasqualoni, a former Penn State linebacker who would certainly say "yes" if asked to be PSU's next coach. Oddly enough, Pasqualoni's long facial features and white hair resemble those of Sandusky a little too much for him to be the next head coach; but he'd be a perfect top assistant for a less-proven, younger hire. A longshot to keep in mind would be Delaware's K.C. Keeler, a Keystone State native who has led the Blue Hens to three FCS national title games since 2002.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think it comes down to Dan Mullen or Mike London, with a slight edge to Mullen. Besides playing college ball in Pennsylvania and his father graduating from Penn State, Mullen has quickly changed the program at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won nine games in his second year, including destroying Michigan in the Gator Bowl. MSU has six losses this season, but five of those were to teams in the Top 15 in the nation. Mullen was an assistant for very successful teams at Florida and Utah, and he would be a great fit in Happy Valley if Penn State will pay the freight to get him to leave Starkville. London’s name is also one to keep in mind, as he has engineered eight wins at Virginia this season. He won a FCS national title at Richmond and would be a solid choice for PSU as well.
By Mitch Light
You can mock Urban Meyer about his family-first statements. You can question his ability to handle the rigors — both physically and mentally — of coaching at Ohio State. You can cite the high number of arrests that have occurred under his watch. You can call him a hypocrite. But you have to admit that the guy is a great football coach.
Some of his doubters will insist that his outstanding record at Florida is simply a product of Tim Tebow’s greatness. That is ridiculous. Meyer has won at a high level at all three of his stops as a head coach, compiling an overall record of 104–23 and a 50–19 mark in league play.
In 2001, Meyer inherited a Bowling Green team that won two games and averaged 15.8 points the previous season. In his first year, the Falcons went 8–3 and doubled their scoring output to 30.2 points per game. The following season, in ’02, Bowling Green went 9–3 and averaged 40.8 points per game.
At Utah, he took over a program that had suffered two losing seasons in the previous two years, including a 5–6 mark in 2002, and went on to records of 10–2 and 11–0 (did not coach the bowl game) in his two seasons. His ’04 Utah team set a school record by averaging 45.3 points and became the first non-AQ school to earn a spot in a BCS bowl. The Utes also produced the top overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, quarterback Alex Smith.
Then, in 2005, Meyer began a six-year run at Florida that featured a 36–13 record in SEC play and two national championships. His teams won 13 games on three occasions, and he went 3–0 in BCS bowls. And in three of his six seasons, the Gators ranked first in the SEC in total offense.
His detractors will point to his final season at Florida — an 8–5 record in 2010 — but not every coach wins at a high level every season. That might be the only wart on what has been a near-flawless coaching record.
And I don’t buy the argument that it’s easy to win at Florida. In fact, history proves just the opposite. Meyer and Steve Spurrier are the only two coaches who have consistently competed for championships in Gainesville.
The bottom line: Meyer is one of the elite coaches in the game and is almost sure to win at a high level as the boss at Ohio State. I have no problem with those who question the way he goes about his business off the field, but it’s almost impossible to find fault with what he has done in the between the lines.
I’d be shocked if Ohio Sate is not competing for a national title in the very near future. He is the right coach at the right time.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After just two seasons at Kansas, Turner Gill was fired on Sunday. Gill’s record through two years was an awful 5-19, winning only one Big 12 game. Although the Jayhawks began this season with a 2-0 record, they lost 10 straight to close the year and only two of those defeats were by less than 10 points.
Who will replace Gill as Kansas’ next head coach?
Tim Beckman, head coach, Toledo – Beckman might be more inclined to wait for a job in the Big Ten, but has been a solid coach at Toledo through three seasons (21-16). The Rockets fell just a victory short of winning the MAC West this year. He has Big 12 coaching experience, working under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State from 2007-08. Would the Jayhawks go to the MAC again after Gill’s failed stint at Kansas?
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – Christensen is a name that Kansas' fans are certainly familiar with, as he worked at Missouri under Gary Pinkel from 1997-08. He has served as Wyoming’s head coach for the last three seasons, leading the Cowboys to a 17-19 record during that span. Wyoming played in a bowl in 2009 and will likely make a postseason trip this year. Christensen is known for his offenses and has done a good job at Wyoming, especially working with inexperienced quarterbacks.
Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Texas – Diaz has made a quick climb up the coaching ladder. He started his career as a graduate assistant at Florida State in 1998, before jumping to NC State in 2000. Diaz later became MTSU’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and took the same position at Mississippi State in 2010, before leaving after one year to coach at Texas. Diaz is a high-energy coach and one of the nation’s top defensive minds. Considering the struggles of Kansas’ defense this year, Diaz would be someone who can immediately help on that side of the ball. The only drawback? No head coaching experience.
Sonny Dykes, head coach, Louisiana Tech – Dykes has quietly done a good job at Louisiana Tech, leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record and a WAC title this season. He has just two years of head coaching experience, but a solid resume as an assistant at Arizona, Texas Tech and Kentucky. His father (Spike) was the head coach at Texas Tech from 1986-99 and led the Red Raiders to an 82-67-1 record. If Kansas doesn’t want to go after Mike Leach, why not one of his disciples from Texas Tech?
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Just like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, Fedora is going to be mentioned for nearly every BCS job that comes open this offseason. In four seasons at Southern Miss, he has recorded a 32-19 record and led the Golden Eagles to a Conference USA East Division title this year. Fedora spent time as an assistant at Florida and Oklahoma State, so he is certainly familiar with what it takes to win at the BCS level. Considering Fedora could be in the mix at Illinois, North Carolina and Ole Miss, Kansas is going to have competition for his services.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – Considering what transpired at Texas Tech, Leach certainly comes with some baggage. However, his results on the field are impressive. In 10 years with the Red Raiders, he recorded an 84-43 record and 10 bowl appearances. Kansas has not made a bowl appearance since 2008, so the program needs a shot in the arm. Leach’s high-powered offenses would be entertaining, but would need a year or two to build personnel if he takes over at Kansas. He is expected to be in the mix for coaching jobs at Arizona State and Illinois.
Jim Leavitt, former South Florida head coach – Leavitt had a messy exit from South Florida in 2009, when he was fired after an investigation into allegations about his treatment of a player during halftime of a game against Louisville. While his exit was not ideal, Leavitt built the South Florida program from scratch, turning it into a consistent bowl team. The Bulls made a bowl every year from 2005-09, but never finished higher than third in the conference. Leavitt played at Missouri and coached at Kansas State from 1990-95, so he’s certainly familiar with the Big 12. Like Leach, Leavitt has some baggage, but has produced solid results on the field.
Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida State – Stoops is one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks. He joined the Seminoles in 2009 as the defensive coordinator, with previous stops as an assistant at Arizona, Miami, Houston, Wyoming and South Florida. Florida State’s defense has shown big progress in two seasons since Stoops took over, with the Seminoles finishing in the top 20 of scoring defense both times. He does not have any head coaching experience, but has developed a strong resume as an assistant. A longshot, but Stoops is a coach that is going to get a shot at a BCS job in the near future.
Mike Stoops, former Arizona head coach – Stoops was fired at Arizona midway through this season. He posted a 41-49 record through eight seasons in Tucson, including three consecutive bowl trips. Stoops left Arizona in a much better position than he inherited it, but was unable to turn it into a contender in the Pac-10 (and now Pac-12). He is very familiar with coaching in the Big 12, thanks to stops at Kansas State (1992-98) and Oklahoma (1999-03). Stoops is a longshot, but considering his familiarity with the Big 12, is someone to watch during the search.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin is one of the hottest names in coaching searches this season. He has been mentioned as a candidate for Ole Miss, Arizona State, North Carolina and Illinois. In four years with Houston, Sumlin has a 35-16 record, and has the Cougars on the doorstep of their first appearance in the BCS. He also has a solid resume, spending time as an assistant at Minnesota, Purdue, Texas A&M and under Bob Stops at Oklahoma. Sumlin will have his choice of jobs this offseason, so the Jayhawks will have to move quick if he is their No. 1 target.
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is regarded as one of the top assistants in college football since joining Bob Stoops at Oklahoma in 1999. He has worked as the Sooners’ defensive coordinator and associate head coach during his time in Norman. Venables is a Kansas native and coached at Kansas State from 1993-98. He is certainly due for a shot at a BCS school, but could be sought for the Illinois, Arizona State or Ole Miss jobs. Needless to say, Venables can be very selective with his decision on where to become a head coach.
They were 6-2 at the midpoint of the season, despite a bunch of free-agent losses and an infirmary full of injuries. Eli Manning was on his way to joining the MVP conversation. Tom Coughlin was earning praise as a possible NFL Coach of the Year.
So what happened? How is it that the Giants are suddenly playing for their season, facing two seemingly unwinnable games and the possibility that they’ll be 6-6 and riding a four-game losing streak when they travel to Dallas for a big NFC East showdown in two weeks?
What happened is what always happens to the Giants: Something. It almost doesn’t matter what. Injuries. Poor play. A receiver shooting himself in the leg. They always start fast and they always finish like they’re a kid at a water park flying down the biggest slide.
This latest splash down has put them in a precarious situation. Tom Coughlin -- who has a 47-17 record in the first halves of season, but a miserable 24-34 record in second halves – has to figure out a way out of his mess while his team plays at New Orleans (7-3) on Monday night and home against the undefeated, defending champion Packers (11-0) on Sunday. Otherwise they’ll head into Dallas reeling, and dealing with seemingly annual questions about Coughlin’s job.
Is it already too late? Is the collapse already in their heads? At least one prominent Giant hopes the answer to the latter is “Yes”.
“I hope it is in our heads,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “I hope it’s fresh in our heads, knowing that we can’t allow ourselves to do that. The good thing is we don’t have any time to feel sorry for ourselves. We don’t have time to be down on ourselves or wonder what’s happening here. We’ve got to figure things out right and figure it out now.”
“You talk about second-half collapses,” Tuck added, “if we get down to the Saints it could be an historical second-half collapse.”
Of course, as Tuck knows, in order to avoid history they need to learn from it first. And the things that led to this collapse are similar what led to their collapses of the past:
They don’t want to use them as an excuse, but they are an excuse. They have 10 players on injured reserve and nine others that have been cut with injury settlements. They lost a starting cornerback and a starting middle linebacker for the season. Tuck has been a physical shell of himself and defensive end Osi Umenyiora lost several games. Lately they’ve been without running back Ahmad Bradshaw and linebacker Michael Boley and receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham have been battling injuries. And they also may have lost their left tackle for the season. No team can seriously be expected to overcome all that.
Lack of emotion
Safety Antrel Rolle blasted his team for being “too calm” and passively letting the Eagles beat them – and beat them up last Sunday. He wanted some sort of response to Philly’s taunting and late hits. Overall, though, this isn’t a fiery team and it doesn’t have a fiery leader. Eli Manning and Justin Tuck are the big voices and their voices are respected, but soft. When things go wrong – as they have the last few years – there’s no fire and brimstone. There’s no Ray Lewis to angrily raise the temperature. Maybe Rolle will be the guy, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Big players come through in big moments, and that’s been sorely lacking in recent years. Eli Manning has done it most of the year, but wasn’t able to come through against the 49ers or Eagles. During the Super Bowl run in 2007, so many players played big in key spots. It was a different player every week. But in the years since? Down the stretch, the biggest players have come up mostly small.
Too much pressure on Eli Manning
This started in 2008, when Plaxico Burress took himself out of the Giants’ lineup with a stray bullet. Everyone looked to Manning to carry the depleted team, to turn someone else into his No. 1 receiver. He never did. He’s great at making the pieces work, at seeing the big picture and doing what he’s supposed to do. But improvising has never been his strongpoint, and when pieces are taken away he has trouble adjusting. It’s subtle. It’s like throwing the ball to where a receiver is supposed to be, without adjusting to the fact that the receiver he’s throwing to can’t get there. Now you want him to win with an offensive line crumbling in front of him, a run game stagnating, and a defense not keeping the score down. This is the first year he’s seemed fully capable of doing that, but it may be too much for him to do it alone.
Too much talk, not enough action
This team loves to talk about their issues and tell everyone how overlooked and underappreciated they are. They talk about needing fire, but don’t show it. They talk about not having another second-half collapse, then go out and lose the first two games of the second half. Their 2007 motto was “Talk is cheap, play the game” which had more to do with all their 2006 griping about their coach. That team loved to talk, too. But it found a way at the end to back up their words. This team, and the teams in 2008-10, never got around to the playing part.
Those are the problems. Those are always the problems. And they need to fix those issues fast, otherwise this whole second-half disaster is just going to happen again.
“It doesn’t matter. The story is still being written,” said defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. “Regardless of what it says now, it all depends on how we finish the season.”
The finish line is approaching quickly. The end of the story begins right now.
By RALPH VACCHIANO
In the five games the Broncos have won since Tim Tebow took over as the starting quarterback, the passing-impaired Tebow has staged his own personal version of NFL Mythbusters.
Myth No. 1: A purely running quarterback will never succeed in the NFL, where the athletes are too good and the speed too overwhelming.
Reality: On the season, Tebow has rushed 78 times for 455 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per carry. That's the best number in the NFL. You read that right: Tim Tebow leads the NFL in yards per rushing attempt. And these aren't Michael Vick scrambles we're talking about. Tebow rushed the ball 22 times against the Chargers, the most rushing attempts by an NFL quarterback since 1950. Of the 22 attempts, 17 of them came on designed runs. Tebow, Willis McGahee and the Denver rushing attack clearly wore down the athletic Chargers defense in piling up 208 rushing yards.
Myth No. 2: The option will never work in the NFL.
Reality: In the Broncos' 16–13 overtime win over San Diego yesterday, the Broncos earned 147 of their 208 rushing yards via the option.
Myth No. 3: In today's NFL, passing accuracy, yardage and mechanics are essential to success.
Reality: For the season, Tebow is completing 45.5 percent of his passes. Yesterday's game marked his first time to hit the 50 percent completion mark (he was 9-of-18 for 143 yards). His season high of 172 passing yards came in the 45–10 loss to Detroit.
For Tebow, though, the only important number has always resided in the win column, and by that measure, the Tebow Train is gathering steam. Denver's improbable march toward the playoffs continued yesterday with another tight, low-scoring win, as the Broncos stuck a fork in the Norv Turner regime in moving to 6–5 on the season and only a game behind the AFC West-leading Raiders.
The Tim Tebow era in Denver is now six games old — still a small sample size, but enough of a body of work to start drawing a few conclusions.
At a glance, it's easy to say that the defense deserves the credit for Denver's resurgence. During Kyle Orton's five games as a starter, the defense surrendered an average of 28 points; in the last six games, the Broncos have allowed an average of 20 points, and if you throw out the 45–10 loss to Detroit, the number falls to 15 ppg.
A-ha, say the detractors. The defense has keyed the surge, and Tebow doesn't play defense. Time to shut up about Timmy and give credit where it's due. Safety Brian Dawkins said as much yesterday: "It's time to start giving the defense some credit," he snapped. I'll gladly do so, Brian: In Tebow's five wins as the starter, the defense has allowed an average of 320 yards per game. That's a more than respectable number.
But let's dig a little deeper. I would argue that Tebow is a key component of Denver's defense, even if he's merely Tebow-ing on the sidelines while the defense does its work. Football is a game of possessions; if you don't have the ball, you can't score. Tebow and the Broncos are playing a remarkably effective game of keep-away. In Tebow's five wins, the Broncos have turned the ball over only twice — Tebow himself, only once — and forced six turnovers of their own.
By shortening the game with the NFL's leading rushing attack and protecting the football, Tebow and the Denver offense are playing the most effective brand of defense imaginable.
Perhaps most importantly, Tebow, the true believer, creates belief among his teammates. The defense, knowing its margin for error is slim, plays a little harder. The offensive line holds its blocks a little longer.
And in the game's waning minutes, the team knows its leader will make just enough plays to win.
"Just having that guy around, it makes us better men," said linebacker Von Miller. "I think he plays for us, and he makes us want to play for him."
Bottom line: Whether John Elway likes it or not, the current Denver formula is a winner. Will it last for the long haul? That's debatable, but the current results are not. Tebow and the Denver defense are the story of the NFL at the moment.
• The Dream is dead. New England dissected the corpse of the Eagles' season with surgical precision. Tom Brady was flawless in the Patriots' 38–20 win over Philly, completing 24-of-34 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns. Vince Young passed for 400 essentially meaningless yards and was robbed of two TD passes by alligator-armed All-Pro wideout DeSean Jackson. Time to put the Dream Team out of its misery.
• Houston's quarterback situation deteriorated further, as Matt Leinart was lost for the season in the Texans' 20–13 win over Jacksonville. New starter T.J. Yates has a tiny cushion — a two-game lead over the Titans — as he tries to coax this injury-depleted squad into the postseason. The decisive game may come in Week 17 as the Titans visit Houston.
• Speaking of emergency replacement quarterbacks, Chicago's Caleb Hanie was game in defeat, but it was still a defeat, 25–20 at the hands of the Raiders. Sebastian Janikowski made a team-record six field goals as the Oakland special teams were the stars of the show.
— by Rob Doster
By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on Twitter)
Post-Week 13 Pac-12 Power Rankings
Check out all of our college football rankings.
1. Oregon (10-2, 8-1) – With the dominating 49-21 win over rival Oregon State in the Civil War, the Oregon Ducks clinched the Pac-12 North. With a win over the 6-6 Bruins on Saturday, the Ducks will win their third straight conference championship and play in their third straight BCS bowl. Oregon finished No. 1 in the league in rushing (291.0 ypg), No. 1 in total offense (510.6 ypg) and No. 1 in scoring offense (45.9 ppg). The Ducks also claim the nation's leading rusher in per game average with LaMichael James' 142.7 ypg and the conference's top return man in DeAnthony Thomas (27.7 ypr). Oregon has won three straight over UCLA including a 60-13 victory in Eugene last season. In his three years as head coach, Chip Kelly is 32-6 overall and 24-3 in conference play.
2. Stanford (11-1, 8-1) – Heisman hopeful Andrew Luck tossed four touchdown passes in what was likely a BCS bowl-clinching 28-14 win over Notre Dame. Luck, who is the Pac-12's most efficient passer (167.5), is 23-2 over his last two seasons and will see his legacy defined as much by his inability to beat Oregon as his 9,083 yards and 87 total touchdowns. Had Luck managed to beat Oregon in either of the last two seasons, Stanford would likely have played for a national championship. Stanford led the Pac-12 in rushing defense (90.3 ypg) and total defense (331.4 ypg). The 23 wins mark the most in a two-year period and represent the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in program history. A match-up with the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner in the Fiesta Bowl is the most likely scenario for Luck's final game at Stanford.
3. USC (10-2, 7-2) – Any team in the nation want to play the USC Trojans in a playoff game? I seriously doubt it. The Men of Troy and Matt Barkley pounded rival UCLA 50-0 in the season finale for USC. It was the Trojans' 11th win in 12 games against UCLA and gave the school their eighth 10-win season in 10 years (counting 2005). Barkley played in what could be his final game for Southern California, completing 35-of-42 passes for 423 yards and six touchdowns. Since the overtime loss to Stanford, the USC quarterback has thrown 17 touchdowns, only two interceptions and averaged 309.5 yards per game while winning all four games. The Trojans are clearly the best team in the Pac-12 South, and it is unfortunate for the players and fans that the NCAA did not lift the postseason bans.
4. Washington (7-5, 5-4) – Despite some second-half struggles, the Huskies ended the 2011 regular season on a high note with a 38-21 win over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. Keith Price bounced back admirably with a 21-of-29, 291-yard, 3-TD performance in the win. The sophomore gunslinger battled through inconsistency and some injuries in his first year as the starter to finish with 29 touchdowns and 2,625 yards through the air. The win gave Washington its first winning regular season since 2002, and with a bowl win, the Huskies would have their first eight-win season since 2001. Washington appears to be headed for the Alamo Bowl to battle with either Kansas State or the loser of the Bedlam game. The Alamo Bowl could also select Cal, pushing Washington to the Holiday Bowl.
5. California (7-5, 4-5) – Cal may have saved Jeff Tedord's job by beating Arizona State 47-38 on Friday. The Golden Bears rushed for 247 yards and four touchdowns on 40 carries. The win assures Tedford of his ninth winning season in 10 years on the job in Berkeley. Cal led the league in pass defense and tackles for a loss this season, and breakout wide receiver Keenan Allen finished second in the conference with 89 receptions and third with 1,261 yards. With three wins in their final four games, the Bears appear to be headed to the Holiday Bowl — potentially against the Baylor Bears and Robert Griffin III.
6. Utah (7-5, 4-5) – Utah missed a golden opportunity to make a huge statement in its first season in the Pac-12. Utah kicker Coleman Petersen missed a 48-yard field goal with two seconds left in a very disappointing 17-14 home loss to the Colorado Buffaloes. It was his third miss of the game, and the loss cost Kyle Whittingham and company a Pac-12 South title — and a chance at a Rose Bowl. Losing star tailback John White IV in the third quarter didn't help, as the Utah running back finished nearly 100 yards below his season average. White carried a season-low 10 times for a season-low 28 yards. The second half of the season has proved that Utah belongs with the BCS big boys, as the Utes finished 4-1 down the stretch in league play. However, the loss to the Buffs leaves an extremly bitter taste in the Utes' mouths — and checkbooks. Instead of the Rose, Alamo or Holiday Bowl, Utah looks to be slated for a trip to El Paso and the Sun Bowl against the ACC's No. 4 team (likely Wake Forest or Virginia).
7. UCLA (6-6, 5-4) – The UCLA Bruins are the inaugural Pac-12 South Champions. The Bruins were outgained 572 to 385 yards, converted on only 3-of-15 third and fourth down conversions and lost 50-0 to USC. But an unexpected loss to Colorado by Utah, awarded the Bruins with a berth in the Pac-12 championship game. As a heavy underdog against the Ducks, the Bruins will likely finish the regular season at 6-7 and will have to apply for a bowl waiver from the NCAA leadership council. If given the waiver, the Bruins have to wait for the conference to fill its other seven bowl commitments before they likely land in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. However, head coach Rick Neuheisel won't be joining his team on any postseason trip. Neuheisel is 21-28 overall and 3-25 against teams that finished with a winning record in four years as head coach, and it appears he will be given his walking papers following this Saturday's conference title game.
8. Arizona State (6-6, 4-5) – The Sun Devils finished an up and down 2011 season by losing 47-38 to Cal at home in the season finale. The loss marked the fourth straight loss and fifth in six games after a 5-1 start for Arizona State. A trip to Sin City and the Las Vegas Bowl with a match-up against Mountain West champ TCU appears the likely postseason destination for ASU. Head coach Dennis Erickson, like many Pac-12 coaches this postseason, could be coaching for his job in the bowl game. Arizona State is 31-30 under Erickson in five seasons, featuring one winning season (2007) and no bowl wins. TCU would be a heavy favorite.
9. Washington State (4-8, 2-7) – The Cougars lost 38-21 to the rival Huskies in the 104th edition of the Apple Cup. Washington State allowed 434 yards of offense to Washington and turned the ball over twice in the second straight loss to the Pac-12 North rival. Paul Wulff is now 9-40 as the head man at Wazzu, and the last winning season in Pullman took place in 2003. The offense showed signs of improvement, finishing second in the conference in passing at 322.3 yards per game. However, expect another tumultuous off-season for the Cougars.
10. Oregon State (3-9, 3-6) – In his second stint as head coach at Oregon State, Mike Riley had two losing seasons in his first eight years. After the 49-21 loss to rival Oregon this weekend, Riley now has his third losing season and his worst record in 11 total seasons as the Beavers head coach. Quarterback Sean Mannion has offered some solace, as the freshman has provided the answer at quarterback. He threw for another 299 yards and three touchdowns in the loss this weekend. He was one yard away from his fifth 300-yard effort in nine games. The Beavers uncharacteristically finished last in the league in rushing offense (86.9 ypg) and rushing defense (196.8 ypg).
11. Arizona (4-8, 2-7) – The Wildcats got a "nice" 45-37 win against a decent UL Lafayette team. Although it doesn't count as the first win of the Rich Rodriguez era, Arizona is technically 1-0 with RichRod as acting head coach. Nick Foles extended his single-season school records for completions (387) and yards (4,334) with his fifth straight 300-yard game and 10th of the season. Foles finished as the Pac-12's leader in total offense at 352.6 yards per game. A two-game winning streak is a great way to get what should be an exciting off-season in Tucson started.
12. Colorado (3-10, 2-7) – The first season of the Jon Embree era ended with a bang. The Buffaloes snapped a 23-game road losing streak by topping the Utes 17-14 in Salt Lake City. Not only did Colorado get its second Pac-12 win of the year, but it also crushed the Utes' hopes of landing in the conference title game. Rodney Stewart played his final game in a Buffs uniform with only 12 touches for 45 yards. Stewart finished his career with 3,598 yards rushing, 25 touchdowns, 93 receptions and 969 yards receiving.