Articles By Athlon Sports
Should college football players be paid? This is a complex and controversial topic in the world of collegiate athletics so we went to the experts (hot girls) to see what their take is on this tricky subject.
As you can imagine, yes, they had some very interesting answers.
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.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
When the 2005 Nextel Cup season kicks off at Daytona during Speedweeks, Fox Sports will be on hand to broadcast all of the action to NASCAR fans across the country.
That means that Darrell Waltrip, Mr. Boogity, Boogity, Boogity himself, will be back in fans’ homes each week sharing with them what he’s learned and seen in a long, legendary career in the sport. Waltrip doesn’t just analyze what he sees on the track during the Fox broadcasts, though. He’s one of the most thoughtful and, as he has been throughout his career, outspoken people there is about NASCAR and stock-car racing.
So we sat down and had a good, long talk with Ol’ DW about what’s going on, and what should be going on, in the sport he’s been so much a part of for so long.
Athlon Sports: There certainly have been major changes in the sport in the past year or so, with the new title sponsor, Nextel, the new Chase for the Nextel Cup system, schedule realignment and, coming up for 2005, another significant change in the rules package for Nextel Cup cars with shorter spoilers. In general, do you think NASCAR has done a good job in working through all of that?
Darrell Waltrip: Our (Fox’s) half of the season in 2004 was a nightmare with all of the changes that were going on — freezing the field and the lucky dog and so much going on. You had so much going on under the caution, thinking back to Dover and some of those races where half the race was run under the caution. It was hard trying to explain that to the people at home. As time went by, they got it smoothed out and things got better. You look at the Chase, I was certainly not a fan of the changes they made. But when the season was over with and you looked at what it did, I still don’t think it’s necessarily the right way to pick a champion, but it’s a great way to create some excitement on television.
When I look back at my career, I talk about the “modern era.” That’s how I judge my career. Twenty years from now, when we look back at what they did with the changes to the format, we’ll talk about this era. Last year was not the closest championship, in my opinion, in NASCAR history because it was done under a totally different format.
I know Brian France is steering the ship, he’s at the head of it so he gets the good news and the bad news. But I think the Chase format had a lot more people involved in it than just Brian waking up one morning and saying, “Here’s what I am going to do.” I have to think NBC had a whole lot of input into what they thought would make it exciting. They did make a lot of changes and we got through 2004 with it being a pretty successful year. I think any time you make changes and look back and say, “Well, we made all of the changes and gained more than we lost,” that’s good.
AS: So you were not sold on the Chase format from the start and still aren’t a big fan of it?
DW: I am never going to be happy, personally, until the guy who wins the most races wins the Championship. I am just never going to be happy until that happens. I just think there’s still that premium on being consistent, and that’s important. But I think if I am a fan and I am sitting at home I want the guy who has won the most races to be the guy who should win the Championship. You win the most games in any other series that I am aware of, you’re more than likely going to win the Championship.
AS: Rockingham is gone, Darlington is down to one race and may not be able to hold on to that. Changes like that can be hard. Do you think they’re necessary?
DW: That is just progress. We’re in a performance business, and I don’t care what aspect of this sport you want to look at, you have to perform. If you’re going to racetracks that are not performing, not living up to standards of the other tracks, you have no choice. You have to move on. Every racetrack that has ever lost a date, dating back into ’70s, has lost it because it couldn’t keep up. I think the bar had to be raised, and it has to be raised more than once every 20 years. I think it has to be raised every year. There are some other racetracks out there that need to conform to some of what the newer tracks are doing.
Scheduling, races and dates, all of those things are the issue of the hour in my opinion. NASCAR makes a lot of rules regulating cars and procedures; it needs to make some rules that regulate tracks and pits and specifications of that nature. The burden shouldn’t always fall on the competitors and the car owners. The burden has to fall on some other shoulders occasionally.
AS: So are you saying that, for instance, at places like Daytona and Talladega, where NASCAR has tried all kinds of changes to rules governing the cars to slow them down and break up the big packs that seem so dangerous, changing those tracks should be an option that’s considered?
DW: There was a time in our sport when we needed extremely big, high-banked racetracks to make exciting racing, but we’re not there any more. We seem to need tracks that are smaller, not bigger.
I am not going to get my dog in a fight about whether we need to go to Daytona and Talladega. I do think there are some things they need to do to improve the racing at those places. I am not a fan of pack racing, and that’s what you have when you go there. I liked it better the way it used to be when we could draft and slingshot and make moves on people and not just block and switch around spots in the middle of the field. I don’t know what the answer to that one is. The restrictor plate is the most simple solution. It seems like we have to have a special car for every track — one for Daytona and Talladega and one for the road courses. I wish we could get down to where we just had one car for everywhere.
AS: What do you think of the idea of moving qualifying to Saturday at some tracks in 2005, then impounding the cars after that until the race?
DW: I don’t like that, because I don’t see benefit. I know what they say the benefit is. But what are those crews going to do all Saturday afternoon? They’re going to be there at the hotel, they’re going to be away from home just like they always were. You’re still there on Friday, which means you still have to get there Thursday night.
I don’t see where it saves anybody anything. The places they need it the most — Daytona and Talladega, where you spend a fortune trying to make two laps — they’re not going to do it. I would impound cars there before I would even think about doing it anywhere else. So you have more special rules and more special cars.
AS: The Chase produced a 26-year-old champion named Kurt Busch, and it seems that some fans aren’t quite sure what to make of him. What are your impressions of Busch and what kind of champion do you think he’ll make?
DW: My gut feeling is, based on what I’ve seen happen in the past, winning a Championship makes a difference in a person. It’s a really good wakeup call. I think it helped Tony Stewart. It helped me in 1981 when I won my first Championship. I saw that I had a different role to play. I had responsibilities that I didn’t have before, some of them were appointed to me and some I just took on my own. I think it helps you grow up. And I think people look at you a little bit differently and they’re willing to give you a second chance. What you do with that second chance will determine what kind of champion you will be.
I told Kurt Busch in New York, “Don’t change. Don’t start trying to be somebody you’re not. You’re a smart kid, you know where you’ve made mistakes and know what you’ve done wrong. Improve on those.” He can drive the wheels off a car. I said all during 2004 he could win every week, they had that kind of team and that kind of car. He has the driving part down and the team part down. That’s your platform. You let your driving do your talking.
AS: Busch has been forced to wear the “bad guy” label at times already in his career. You got saddled with that for at least parts of your career. Do you think it’d be harder to carry that kind of reputation now than it was back then, and how was it to have to deal with that everywhere you went?
DW: In my era, when I was in my prime, we didn’t even have television. I know it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but in the early 1980s there were very few races on from flag to flag. I had a different audience. The only people who were mad at me were the 30,000 who showed up at Bristol or maybe 10 or 15 drivers who liked me or didn’t like me. It was a whole different environment.
The world was different. Rivalries were big in every sport. You had Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, in golf you had Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, whatever it might have been. Sports were all about rivalries, like Earnhardt and me. But then somewhere along in the middle 1990s, the whole world changed. Everything had to be politically correct. You couldn’t say or do or act the way you used to. You had to act the way people wanted you to. You couldn’t be yourself. So from that point on, people had this prototype of what a guy’s supposed to act like and look like, and if you don’t live up to that, then they don’t like you.
AS: Was Jeff Gordon that prototype?
DW: You’ve got it. The racing world that we have known changed in 1992. That’s when most people think racing started. They don’t know anything before that, they only know after that. There’s AJ, and there’s BJ — after Jeff and before Jeff.
AS: With Busch being the third-youngest champion in the sport’s history, it raises the question about younger drivers playing such a prominent role in the sport the past couple of years. Do you buy into the line of thinking that young drivers bring younger fans into the sport, and will that change the structure of NASCAR in any way?
DW: One of the concerns that I would have if I were at the helm is losing the sport’s established stars, the guys who’ve been here for so long. There is a portion of that 150,000 people who are up there every weekend who come to see those guys race. Those guys bring in an audience that we need, just like young guys do. We obviously needed a youth movement because, as you can see, we’re losing all of our older drivers, the older stars. But I don’t like to see them all squeezed out at one time. I know in my last two or three years that I drove, people would not leave me alone. All I wanted to do was for people to leave me alone, I just wanted to have fun and enjoy it. I liked to race, I liked to be at the track. If I got lapped, big whoop. Give me my own personal little space here, and leave me alone. But people won’t do that. You set a standard and you have to live up to it, and when you don’t live up to it any more then you need to quit. That’s how people look at it.
It’s no fun just to be a part of the show, you want to be the show. But when you get to the point where you are just part of the show, in today’s racing environment, somebody’s going to be taking your place.
AS: Unquestionably, younger drivers are getting more opportunities earlier in their careers than ever before. What advice would you give to these 19- and 20-year-olds breaking into one of the top NASCAR series?
DW: The one word that never left any of us as drivers and is the one thing fans appreciate is respect. If drivers would just respect each other, respect the sport, and respect the people who’ve made it what it is, that will go a long way in my book.
I like young drivers, and that’s one thing I like about guys like Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler, any number of those guys, they call me DW, that’s what people know me as, but they also call me Mr. Waltrip. That shows a lot of respect.
What does a young guy have to do? He has to earn the respect of the old guys on and off the racetrack. You don’t have to pull over for them, but you have to race them clean and show them the proper respect. And the fans are the same way, respect the fans. Somebody had to build this, and it wasn’t you. It’s your job to maintain it, but somebody had to build it, and the guy who had to build it is the guy who had to work the hardest.
AS: Is there a driver out there today, aside from your brother, Michael, who reminds you of yourself?
DW: I guess at one time Jeff Gordon reminded me of myself, but now I think Kurt Busch does. I was arrogant and obnoxious and irreverent, and I guess in some people’s minds you could say the same things about Kurt. That’s why I think he’ll be OK (laughter).
AS: In the ESPN movie about Dale Earnhardt, you were portrayed as a rival and as somebody who didn’t have a very good relationship with him. How was your relationship with him, really?
DW: Dale and I spent a lot of time together in the early years. We worked out of his father-in-law Robert Gee’s shop, worked on cars together and messed around and we were really good buddies at that time because neither one of us had anything. I mean, I was broke and he was borrowing money from me.
But then, like all relationships, it changed. Bobby Allison loved me until I got to where I could beat him all of the time and he didn’t like me any more. That’s kind of like Dale and I were. Dale and I got along just fine because we were not in the same league. But once we got to be in the same league and where we were looking at each other eye-to-eye all of the time, there were things about each other that we didn’t like.
AS: You raced for years and years, but because of television do the fans seem to know you better now, or at least feel closer to you, than they ever did when you were competing?
DW: What I love about race fans, whether they’re mine or whoever they pull for, is that they only remember the good times. They don’t remember the bad times. That’s why, God love them, on your worst day they’re still right there beside you. You can finish 43rd and they will come up and say, “Man, DW, you had a heck of a day. Great job.” And they pat you on your back and send you on your way.
AS: You’ve been known to say that if somebody offered you the chance to run NASCAR for one day, the first thing you’d do is ask for more time because it’d take longer than that to fix what you think is wrong. If you had that chance, what would be the first changes you’d make?
DW: The biggest problem with the cars, as we all know, is they are too aero-dependent. That could be cured so easily. You could take the car they have right now and mandate a spring rule to where the cars would get up off the track. I mean, they look like vacuum cleaners going around the racetrack. Mandate a spring rule to get the cars up off the track and that would take away some of that aero dependency.
The cars are not mechanically dependent like they were in all the years I raced. It’s not about springs and shocks and swaybars, it’s more about getting the aero package. I think that’s what hurts racing. I think if we took off those sloopy noses they’ve got on them now — they look like snowplows — and get the things looking more like a street car I think you would see better racing. I wouldn’t reinvent the race car, I would just square it up some. The cars of the past had character lines, and off those lines is where you made your templates and everything else. The cars now are like footballs. The rounder they get, the harder they are to police. So I’d try to get the cars back more like they were in the early 1990s, and that’s easy to do.
That’s one thing I would do. And I would do everything in my power (and I know that there are some things that people don’t like about what I am going to say) I would try to make my schedule more friendly. Rather than crisscrossing the country all the time, if they want to save money and make the sport a little friendlier for the competitors, I would have a West Coast swing and I would have an East Coast swing. I would try to do it in a way where the teams wouldn’t have to have a truck meeting them in Memphis to take something out west and something back to the east.
I would limit the tires they use. There’s way too many pit stops. They want to slow down pit stops, but you don’t need to slow them down — we just need to have less of them. I would come up with a number like they have in the Busch Series and that’s the tires you’d have for the weekend. That would save the teams a lot of money.
One of my favorite quotes from the past, and I can’t even tell you who it was, but one of the car owners told NASCAR one time, “I can’t afford for y’all to save me any more money.” That’s a classic quote. One other thing I would do? No testing, and no wind tunnel testing unless NASCAR wants to take a series of cars to the wind tunnel to get some numbers off them. I would open the racetracks a day early for a day of practice. A team could run two cars or three cars, but at the end of the day whatever car you present for inspection, that’s your car for the weekend. Everybody gets there at the same time and we’re all there together. You don’t have cars running all over the country trying to find places to test.
The NBA lockout is really confusing and scary. Between BRI, decertification and David Stern’s visible depression, it’s been very hard on basketball fans. But in the midst of these troubling times, one thing has become clear: player’s association vice president Maurice Evans loves himself some face time in front of the cameras.
No matter the situation, Evans was there with a pose that shed light on the mood of the negotiations. So to help clear things up on the first day that players begin missing paychecks, we went straight to the source to see how negotiations went south so quickly.
By Saul Hutson
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.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
We’ve discovered that drivers are as bold and determined in sharing their opinions as they are when they’re dashing for the checkers. Once again, we’ve convened some of the sport’s top guns for some candid questions and even more candid replies. Some questions brought quick, definitive answers, while others drew a diverse range of opinions. Enjoy.
Are off-track incidents that draw penalties that deduct points fair (i.e., the cursing penalty or physical confrontations)?
Jeff Gordon: It depends on the circumstances. Obviously, the one with Junior was a total overreaction, but so were the other similar situations earlier in the year that involved the other drivers who were punished the same way as Junior for the same reason. If you are out there wrecking owners’ cars or embarrassing the sport, the penalties are fair and justified. You have to evaluate each one a little differently because each case is a little different. It’s a job I’m glad I don’t have to do or make the calls on that one.
Ricky Rudd: My personal opinion is that I can’t group all off-track incidents into that category, but maybe a cuss word that slips out, if you are referring to the Earnhardt incident, my feeling is that points should not have been taken away.
Elliott Sadler: NASCAR does a great job of keeping everyone on a level playing field, and they were more consistent in 2004. I think they are making progress as a sanctioning body as it relates to penalties. Some of them are more harsh than I may agree with and some of them are more mild than I agree with.
Brian Vickers: It really depends on the situation. When it comes to the penalties, if it’s a severe enough infraction, points need to be deducted. A fine is not much of a deterrent, but taking away points gets everyone’s attention.
Jimmie Johnson: I feel for NASCAR and for Junior on that deal. I mean, everybody wants a colorful driver to speak what’s on your mind. But there’s obviously laws and rules in place that we all have to abide by.
I know that all sporting events, everything from baseball, basketball, everything, including the racing, we’ve been under a lot of pressure from I guess — what is it called? The FCC. You know, there’s been things brought up in the drivers meeting about watching how we even use language on the radio across the board.
With the precedent (NASCAR) set earlier in the year, they weren’t left an option in my opinion. I feel that they didn’t want to affect the Championship based on this. I wouldn’t want to see the Championship affected by something somebody said outside of the race car. This deal needs to be settled on the racetrack. But, again, we have rulings and regulations that we have to abide by and a precedent that has been set that they didn’t have a choice but to fall in line with what they did earlier in the year.
Does the Nextel Cup Series need a separate point system for Chase participants (i.e., should the team that wins the most races be crowned champion, should anyone with at least one win be included, more points awarded for wins, etc.)?
Ryan Newman: I’ve made my opinion on the entire Chase system very clear. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the original point system. No matter how they decide to build the Chase format, I don’t think it’s fair to take points away from anyone. I don’t see how they can justify that.
Johnson: I’ve been a fan of raising the difference in the points (first versus second place) all along. I think that would be a good change regardless of the way the Championship is decided anyway.
Gordon: I like and don’t like the new points system. It was fun and exciting toward the end of this season. No one knew who was going to win it all until the last half of the final race of the season. It was great. I do have concerns for the sponsors that don’t make The Chase and what should be done, I am not sure. I agree and don’t agree with it, but it did make for quite a ride there in the end.
Vickers: The Chase itself is great and I believe it accomplished the objectives NASCAR hoped it would in terms of drawing attention to the sport. The point system needs to reward wins and consistency. Maybe more points for wins and bonuses for top 5 finishes.
Sadler: I like the format the way it is. It’s a little bit of the new and a little bit of the old. I’m sure NASCAR will refine this system as we move forward, but for now I think it works just fine. We went into the final race with five drivers mathematically eligible. That’s exciting and our ratings were up as a result of it. I think the new format is great!
Are you concerned with sponsorship issues for teams who do not make The Chase?
Rudd: I believe it is a concern because of lot of these agreements that are in place today with the new point system were signed one or two years ago before the new system was announced. And now you’ve got sponsors that are not getting the exposure that they thought maybe they should be getting. Maybe they’ve had some good races and they have not gotten the exposure on the television because television is busy covering the top 10 in points. So I think there are some wrinkles that have to be worked out. It could affect the future contract negotiations that sponsors and teams enter into for sponsorships. I’m afraid that could be a big sticking point.
Sadler: No. I think the increased ratings because of the Chase is a home run for all of the sponsors involved in this great sport. If you’re in the top 10 it is a bonus but if you aren’t you can still go out and win races. If you do that your sponsor will get the attention and exposure they deserve. I’m a big supporter of the new format and believe all sponsors should be too.
Johnson: I guess it depends on your perspective and the point of view you want to take. When I talk to NASCAR and understand their point of view and why they wanted to bring this system into place — look at the numbers at the end of the season on the Joyce Julius reports, you’ve got more teams getting more exposure because of the first 26 races. It’s not just focused on the people competing for the Championship. There is a cutoff point and there are more teams farther back that are getting more exposure. So, I think you can work up an argument from either side. What’s the right answer? I think everybody knows that I’ve been the slowest to form and agree with the points system. But I do feel it’s going to be here to stay. There may be some tweaking that takes place. But I think this is going to hit what they wanted to hit and that it will bring some more attention to our sport.
Newman: I think sponsorship issues are always a concern for everyone involved in NASCAR. Each driver knows that they wouldn’t be where they are without his or her sponsor so they want that sponsor to get as much play and publicity as possible.
Whether or not you are in the Chase, performance should be every team’s main goal. If you perform well, and possibly win some races, your sponsor will get just as much attention as those who are gunning for the Championship.
Do you believe drivers in The Chase get raced against differently? How so?
Johnson: In the beginning, we saw some things take place that I hope kind of sent a message to the guys that aren’t in the Chase that want to be in the Chase in the future and want that respect paid back to them. We had a couple of problems. I had one at Richmond before we went into the final 10. When you’re caught up in it, you’re overly frustrated. When it doesn’t happen to you, you think, ‘There’s my chance to separate myself from a couple of cars.’ It’s just like any other time, I think. When it happens to you, you’re upset. If it doesn’t happen to you, you really don’t have an opinion. You just kind of let it roll by. But I think everybody raced pretty smart and clean.
Vickers: They may catch a break from a driver from time to time, but in most cases I would say every driver races one another the same whether it’s the second race of the season or the last. Everyone is there to win — each week.
Sadler: I think we all raced against each other the same way we had all year. I was involved in several incidents during the Chase, but none of them were with Chase contenders. We race against each other every week and most of us understand it takes a lot of give and take to make that work successfully.
Newman: No, not really. If they are in there (the Chase) I don’t think they expect any special treatment. But by the same token they ought to be treated fairly. To me the point system should be operated blindly out of sight of the competitors.
Who besides yourself and your teammate do you consider the front-runner for the 2005 Nextel Cup?
Johnson: You know, I would look to say for my own selfish reasons within my team, for Hendrick Motorsports, all the people working so hard to build great race cars for us. But there definitely is something out there that you’d love to see Mark (Martin) win one. The man has tried so hard for so many years and has been so close that it wouldn’t hurt my feelings, I should say, if he was the champion.
Sadler: I think Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be strong, but I also think Mark Martin is going to be a huge threat. This is a tough sport and we are undergoing more rule changes so that will change the competition some.
Vickers: I have great teammates at Hendrick Motorsports who’ll be in contention for the Championship next year. I don’t know that I can consider anyone else.
Newman: The returning champion, Kurt Busch, is always going to be tough. You really can’t count out any of the Roush cars. Matt Kenseth is tough, and Mark Martin really turned it on this year. The Hendrick teams really have it together right now too. They proved this year that they are capable of winning any race at any track.
Would you be in favor of a two-day weekend as opposed to the current three-day show in the Cup Series?
Gordon: I am in favor of more two-day weekends, because it will save money and time for everyone who works in this sport and is on the road almost every weekend. It will save money on tires and it will give those who travel the majority of the year more time at home and that is something you can’t put a price tag on.
Sadler: I’m a big supporter of it. I have a motorcoach I take to the track every week, but my crew guys don’t have that same luxury. If they can give those guys an extra day at home with their families then I absolutely support it 100 percent.
Newman: Definitely. If there is a way that NASCAR could work this out, I think every team would be in favor of it. It would cut back the cost of racing to a certain degree. Plus, every crew member would get an extra day at home with his or her family. As much as they’re gone with the current schedule, I can’t think of any of them who wouldn’t want an extra day at home, including myself.
Vickers: I’m kind of indifferent. There are some events better suited for two-day shows — that’s a fact. The real beneficiaries of two-day events are, and should be, the crew guys. Allowing them to be at home an extra day with their families would go a along way. They work so hard, travel so much that getting them an extra day would be my biggest concern for switching to two-day shows.
Is there someone outside your team who has influenced your career and you consider a mentor?
Sadler: Yes, my Uncle Bud has always been my hero and a huge inspiration in my life. Uncle Bud passed away last year after a long bout with cancer. I have a lot of cousins that still race and so does my brother and our family tradition started with our Uncle Bud.
Gordon: I have been fortunate enough to drive for some of the best owners and with some of the greatest drivers in the sport. I’ve had a ton of mentors. It’s hard to nail down just one. I mean, I drove for Richard Childress for the last three years. I’ve driven for Roger Mears, Rick Mears and Derrick Walker. The list can go on and on, so I have been blessed to be mentored by all of them.
Newman: My father, first and foremost. He’s the one who first introduced me to racing. He went on to sacrifice much of his time for me to pursue this career. He’s always been very supportive of my racing career.
Buddy Baker has pretty much been my mentor since I joined NASCAR. Buddy took me to my first test session and helped coach me through my first year with Penske. I still go to him with my questions, and I know I can always trust his answers. He’s a great friend.
Vickers: There’s been so many people along the way that have helped me throughout my career. From family, to friends to other drivers. If I had to pick one person, it would be my dad.
Rudd: Right off the top of my head I can’t think of anybody. But right at the beginning when I was coming in when I was 18 years old, I guess he was probably my age now at that time — James Hylton was very helpful when I was coming into the sport if for no other reason than he just took an interest in trying to give me some pointers. The other fella I would have to say was Junie Dunlavey, the car owner I drove for in 1979. Junie was a car owner, but he was also a very good coach. He worked with a lot of drivers who went on to be really great drivers. A lot of people didn’t realize that Junie at that time was more than just an owner. He was a very good driver coach. They didn’t really exist in the sport at that time. When I ran for Junie I had just run a handful of car races so he had his work cut out for him that year.
What would you do to make restrictor plate racing safer?
Gordon: There is really nothing else you can do other than what has already been done.
Rudd: Take off the restrictor plates.
Vickers: I’m comfortable right now the way plate racing is.
If the wives or girlfriends of the Nextel Cup drivers were to race against one another, who would you bet on? If the crew chiefs were to do the same who would you bet on?
Rudd: She’s not on the track any more, but it would have to be Robin Dallenbach. A lot of people don’t realize that she actually drove Cup cars for a while.
Sadler: I’d bet on Delana Harvick and Tommy Baldwin.
If you were given an opportunity with a top-notch team to run the Indianapolis 500, would you?
Johnson: I thought I was going to end up racing Indy cars. That was my dream when I was younger until I got into my teens, really. I watched Rick Mears and Robby Gordon. Robby came from the off-road ranks and was going into Indy cars and it seemed like that was the natural step for an off-road racer — actually the only step for an off-road racer at the time. Until Chevrolet took me under its wing and guided my career, I thought as a kid that Indy cars would be what I would race. There were races close to my house and I could catch them on television — especially the Indy 500. It was the biggest race we’d watch all year long. I always wanted to go to the Brickyard and to be there in a stock car in the best form of racing has a lot of cool things that come along with that. That was one of the few races I could sit and watch the whole race with my dad on television. I remember the fiery crashes with some of the starts in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I’ve just always had a big draw to the race track just like everybody does.
Sadler: No. I would like to run a World of Outlaws car, but I just don’t have any interest in running in many open wheel series.
Newman: Not at this time. I won’t say that I’ll never consider it, but not right now. The ALLTEL team and I are 100 percent focused on winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship. We are completely consumed by that. I wouldn’t want to turn my focus to anything else until we accomplish that goal.
Rudd: That was a big decision we went through in 1998. We won the Brickyard 400 in 1997. I was invited to drive for one of the top Indy car teams to be a partner with Scott Goodyear. And I had to weigh that out really heavily. Even though we won in ‘97, our Cup team was struggling very hard to make that work, and I was a very active owner. If I had taken time away during the month of May with back and forth trips to Carolina between Cup races it would have been a major distraction. I was very excited about the opportunity offered by the car owner John Barns. Again, it was a tough decision and I finally made the decision that with the ownership role in Cup garage and trying to do both, both would have suffered.
Vickers: Without a doubt!
Gordon: I already have run with a top-notch team and always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t with a top-notch team.
It’s said that the difference between a man and a boy is the size of his toys. What are some of your favorite toys?
Gordon: I love toys. I think I have the ultimate toy. It is my Trophy truck. It is the ultimate motorcycle along with the ultimate monster truck all mixed in one. It weighs 4,500 pounds and makes 900 horsepower. It can get up to 35 feet in the air. That’s major air…for a truck.
Vickers: I’m still a kid. I enjoy keeping up with technology and all of the gadgets which come as a result of it. I mess around on my computer a lot, play video games —the kind of things the average 21-year-old likes. Nothing out of control.
Rudd: I fool with some four-wheelers a little bit and I play with go-karts a little bit and occasionally dirt bikes.
What other drivers or crew chiefs would you want to play poker against? Which would you not?
Vickers: I play poker with Jeff (Gordon), Jimmie (Johnson) and Casey Mears on somewhat of a regular basis. Jeff is a good poker player and probably the one I would most likely not wish to play against in a tournament.
Sadler: We play Texas Hold’em some at the track for fun. I enjoy playing with Greg Biffle and the other participants are usually bus drivers. Those guys are card sharks, especially Digger — Dale Jarrett’s bus driver. I enjoy playing cards so there’s not anyone I’d turn down in a friendly card game.
Gordon: Any of them. I’m pretty good.
How does a girl go about meeting a race car driver?
Johnson: I see a lot of attempts made to all kinds of drivers. I don’t know if I necessarily agree or if it’s the right way (laughs). At the track, it’s tough because the guys are there doing their jobs. Rarely do you catch one out on a night where their minds are not on racing. We’re all normal people. If you look at any sports figure and you get them away from their environment, they just really like to relax and do what the rest of the world does. So if you can catch somebody during the week at dinner or somewhere else, that would be your best bet.
At what age do you plan to retire? What do you plan to do after your driving career? Will you remain in racing in some capacity?
Sadler: That’s a good question. We’ve seen a new trend recently with young guys coming in and some of the elder drivers are in the process of retiring or at least cutting back to a partial schedule. I think you’ll see most of the guys in my generation racing til 40 or 45. After I retire I have no clue what I’ll be doing. I would love to partner with a sponsor and build a Busch or Cup team. That’s a long ways away for me.
Gordon: I will probably try to go until I am 40ish. I am sure I will do something involved in racing one way or another, even after I retire. I am already venturing into ownership and that will be something I plan to pursue for quite a long time.
Vickers: Retirement is not on my mind yet. I don’t think you’ll see drivers compete for as many years as they have in the past because the schedule and demands are just so great now. When I do step away from driving full-time I’d like to remain involved in the sport somehow or in another business field.
The following questions were asked under the assurance that answers would be printed anonymously:
Do you believe there are teams using traction control?
- “I don’t know.”
What are the drawbacks of being at the pinnacle of your sport? To put it another way, what sucks about your job?
- “I don’t like flying. So that’s easy to answer.”
- “Travel. Time away from home.”
- “Nothing really sucks about it. You just don’t have a life outside of it. It consumes your life. It’s not a job. It’s a way of life.”
- “The drawbacks are far less than the benefits. Time and privacy are probably the two biggest drawbacks.”
Who is the most underrated driver and crew chief (not necessarily on the same team) on the circuit?
- “Greg Biffle is the most underrated.”
- “Chris Andrews is a very underrated crew chief. I think you will be hearing more about him in years to come.”
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
- “My wife and I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for our honeymoon. It was absolutely beautiful and very relaxing. So it’s right up there. I’m taking the team to Utah for vacation in December, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m sure we’ll have a great time skiing and snowmobiling.”
- “Nags Head, North Carolina.”
- “Anywhere that has a beach.”
- “Don’t have one.”
- “Mexico, because what happens in Mexico stays in Mexico, I always say.”
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.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Jeff Gordon did it first. Then came Tony Stewart. These two dirt guys came through NASCAR like General Sherman burned through Atlanta. Gordon was a young, good-looking hot shoe in open wheel racing with the Indy 500 in his sights. Ford picked him up, and off to the Busch Series young Gordon went. The story is well-known: Gordon ran two years in the NASCAR Busch Series before Rick Hendrick stole him away from Ford.
Gordon moved up to the Cup ranks in 1993 and suffered through crashes and a steep learning curve before winning his first Cup race in 1994. That started an 11-year winning streak that has included four championships.
Stewart came along as the next hot driver pulled from the Midwest dirt tracks. Joe Gibbs made the call and put Stewart in the NASCAR Busch Series for two years. Stewart came close to winning a couple of races, and finally did so when he moved up to the Cup ranks in 1999 There, he won three races in his rookie year.
The success of Gordon and Stewart has put a premium on snatching young drivers off the dirt tracks in hopes of finding the next young star. As a result, the former breeding ground for the big-time NASCAR circuits has disappeared. Asphalt tracks like Hickory, Nashville and Birmingham no longer produce the top young talent.
The Search for the Next Star
The search for young talent landed at places like the Indiana State Fairgrounds (Hoosier 100), Illinois State Fairgrounds (Tony Bettenhausen 100) and the DuQuoin Fairgrounds (Ted Horn 100). Car owners were looking at the Silver Crown Series for drivers capable of following in the footsteps of Gordon and Stewart. Gordon won the USAC Silver Crown Series in 1991; Stewart won the 1995 title. With their success, open wheel dirt drivers began looking to Daytona instead of Indianapolis for the future.
Established Cup veteran Ken Schrader enjoyed an impressive career driving Sprint Cars, Midgets and the Silver Crown Series machines. Schrader moved into the Cup series in 1985 with a full-time ride with Junie Donlavey. After three seasons, Schrader signed on with Rick Hendrick and won just four races in 267 starts. His career has been lackluster since the early ’90s.
Dave Blaney has impressive credentials, including a World of Outlaws title and the 1984 USAC Silver Crown Championship. Bill Davis put Blaney in a Busch car for 20 races in 1998 and a full season in 1999, running the Gordon/Stewart plan. Blaney ran two full Cup seasons with Davis before joining the Jasper Engines team in 2002. The dirt track champion has produced mediocre results at best in the Cup Series. Blaney joins Richard Childress for 2005 in a competitive, fully funded effort. This year will determine whether Blaney is a success or a bust.
Mike Bliss owns 12 career Craftsman Truck wins and won the 2002 Truck Series Championship. Bliss has bounced around in the Busch and Cup Series in the last two seasons. Last year, Bliss claimed his one and only Busch victory and had a couple of great runs in a Joe Gibbs Cup car, including a fourth at Richmond. Bliss has signed a three-year deal with Gene Haas to run the NetZero Chevy, giving him his best opportunity in Cup racing to date.
Gibbs also went after ’98 Silver Crown Champion Jason Leffler. The plan was to follow in Stewart’s footsteps, running a Busch program for a couple of years to prepare the dirt track ace for the Cup level. Leffler’s credentials were impressive, as he came to Gibbs with two USAC Midget titles to go along with his Silver Crown title. In his first season in the Busch Series, Leffler won three poles and had one runner-up finish. Chip Ganassi offered Leffler a Cup ride for the 2001 season, which he took, but he was cut loose after 30 disappointing races.
Leffler made a NASCAR comeback with Jim Smith in 2002, making a couple of Cup and Truck starts in the Dodges out of Smith’s shop but failed to deliver a win. The next year, Leffler ran six Busch races in the Gene Haas Chevy and notched his first Truck win for Smith.
This season, Leffler will be back with Joe Gibbs for his second tour of duty in the Cup series. This time around he has enough experience to expect better results.
After losing Leffler to Ganassi in ‘01, Gibbs went after J.J. Yeley, who won the Silver Crown Championship in 2002 and the 2003 USAC Triple Crown. Yeley ran some Busch races and two Nextel Cup races in ‘04 but struggled to make the transition. All of the open wheel dirt track heroes who didn’t make it in Cup cars had less than two solid years of stock car experience before making the jump to Cup. This trend is undeniable.
Keys to Crossover Success
One reason dirt racers succeed on asphalt is that they have experience adapting to cars that change by the lap and track conditions that change even more quickly. The Silver Crown cars also run on asphalt at tracks like Phoenix, Richmond, Pikes Peak, Nazareth and Milwaukee, providing valuable experience.
Fuel capacity also makes a huge difference. Silver Crown cars hold 70 gallons of fuel (approximately 500 pounds) behind the rear axle. In a NASCAR Cup car, they haul 22 gallons (approximately 150 pounds) of fuel. Because of the heavy fuel load, Silver Crown drivers must nurse their cars so they don’t burn up the right rear tire. Once the fuel load burns down and lightens the load, it’s showtime.
Last year at the Silver Crown race at Nazareth, Kasey Kahne ran most of the race in seventh to 10th place. With a quarter of the laps left, he came to the front and won by taking care of his tires and finding the best groove.
If you watch Kahne in his Cup or Busch car, he is constantly searching for the right groove on the track. Listening to his radio communication, he is constantly making adjustments to meet changing track conditions.
The NASCAR Cup, Busch and Truck guys fight changing track conditions throughout the race. As 43 cars lay down rubber and oil, the best of the best know how to fight these ever-changing circumstances by changing grooves as the track changes. Drivers with an asphalt-only background take longer to learn how to run with these changing track conditions.
There is a huge difference in racing grooves at dirt tracks. The race last September at DuQuoin is a prime example. When the race started, every car hugged the bottom groove. By the time the race was halfway over, cars were running the bottom, middle and on the cushion of the high side. Adjustments like those provide perfect training for stock cars.
Traditionally, stock cars have relied on the right front tire and suspension to turn the car. Entering a turn, the weight transfers to the right front, and the driver has to nurse the car to keep that tire from burning up. The opposite is true for the open wheelers; they are running cars as loose as they can stand.
On the Fox broadcasts, Darrell Waltrip constantly talks about the younger dirt trackers riding on the right rear in the turns. He is referring to the dirt track racing technique of pitching a car into the turn after a late apex and placing the weight load on the right rear. This is a driving technique asphalt drivers have not had to learn.
Roger Penske went fishing in the USAC waters to find Ryan Newman. His open wheel record is impressive: 1993 All-American Midget Series Champion and Rookie of the Year, 1995 USAC National Midgets Rookie of the Year, 1996 USAC Silver Crown Rookie of the Year, 1999 Silver Crown Champion and 1999 USAC Rookie of the Year.
In 2000, Penske set Newman up in the ABC (ARCA, Busch, Cup) program. Newman ran a limited schedule of ARCA races, winning at Pocono in only his second start. He followed that up with wins at Kentucky and Lowe’s.
Newman ran a Busch schedule and seven Cup races in 2001 before joining the Cup series full-time in ‘02. He brought his open wheel experience along with a degree in Vehicle Structural Engineering from Purdue University. His two years of stock car experience provided Newman a comfort level before making the jump.
Jack Roush has joined the dirt track fraternity with the addition of Carl Edwards. Roush found Edwards in one of his “Gong Show” try-out sessions. Edwards followed his father’s footsteps, dirt racing across the Midwest in the Silver Crown Series in 2001 and ‘02. He joined Roush for a run at the Craftsman Truck title in 2003 and won three races. Last season, Edwards won three more Truck races and ran a third of the Cup schedule. In his 13 Cup starts, he recorded five top 10 runs. With his short but impressive career in NASCAR, he looks like a keeper.
A “Can’t Miss” Who Missed
Soon after Jeff Gordon made his move from open-wheel dirt cars to become a star in NASCAR, Kenny Bernstein had a great idea. If a youngster could make it, why not one of the best the World of Outlaws had to offer? Bernstein grabbed Steve Kinser, whose only Cup experience had been in the 1993 Daytona 500 qualifying race, where he lasted only two laps before crashing out.
Bernstein had limited success with several drivers behind the wheel of his King Motorsports Cup team. After parting ways with Brett Bodine at the end of the 1994 season, Kinser got the job in a move hailed as genius. Kinser won an IROC race in Talladega the previous year, so many observers thought a stock car superstar could be found in all of the dirt and dust.
Kinser got off to a shaky start at Daytona, using a provisional to get in and lasting only 27 laps before crashing out. The next week, he used another provisional to make the race at Rockingham, where he finished 27th, 56 laps off the pace. The Cup Series went to the first short track of the season at Richmond, where Kinser qualified 36th and finished 28th. Things improved in Atlanta, as Kinser qualified 23rd but made only nine laps before crashing out for the second time in four races. The track too tough to tame didn’t offer much help; just 95 laps into that race, the motor expired, leading to a 40th-place finish.
The next two races were short tracks where conventional wisdom said Kinser would be a little more at home. Bristol resulted in a DNQ followed by another at North Wilkesboro. That was the final straw. Kinser was out and Hut Stricklin was in. Kinser went back to dirt track racing, where he remains.
Kinser went straight to the Cup Series from the dirt cars, with no Busch, ARCA or other stock car experience. He came into the sport when the test sessions were limited, and the number of tires was restricted during race weekend. He never had a chance.
There is a definite pipeline that leads from short dirt tracks to the Nextel Cup Series. Some, like Gordon and Stewart, have reached the pinnacle of stock car success. Some, like Leffler and Edwards, are still proving themselves, while others have dropped out completely. However, the fact remains that the experience gained from slinging mud is a perfect first step on the way to a successful stock car career.
The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
With a new TV contract on the horizon, NASCAR must sift through the positives and negatives of its landmark deal of 2001.
Now that the TV guys have three years under their collective belts, it’s time to look to the future of TV and the sport. It’s no secret that both FOX and NBC have lost money on the current big-dollar package. Advertising sales have not covered the rights fees. But while the networks are hurting, most local affiliate stations have seen racing as a financial bonanza.
Interesting questions are on the horizon. What if one or both networks refuse to sign at the same rights fees or even decline to sign up for another go-round? The sanctioning body has never been known to look into the future, and now the TV networks have the upper hand. NBC has a history of cutting losses and has dropped sports such as the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball in recent years. Insiders say that NBC was close to dumping NASCAR early in 2003 because of the financial losses. What happens if the peacock passes on the next contract? Is ABC or CBS ready to sign on?
There are four networks that fight for golf, NCAA basketball and football, NBA, MLB and the NFL. The NASCAR season overlaps all other sports, making it difficult for the networks to schedule other sports. Business sense suggests that rights fees will not be as high for the next contract. If NASCAR refuses to accept lower fees, we could be back to cable and just a few network races.
Fox got off to a rocky start by not putting car sponsors on the car graphics at the 2001 Bud Shootout because said sponsors did not pony up with advertising dollars. Only the cars with sponsors that spend advertising dollars on FOX had their logos on the car graphics. Car and race sponsors were required to purchase advertising before they would get significant mentions or logo exposure. If the rights fees had not been so high, maybe that embarrassment would have been avoided. When people lose money, they tend to look after their own interests instead of the well-being of the sport.
Fox started off a lap down with sales; the week before their first Daytona 500 they had not sold all of the ad time. It was a fire sale to get advertisers on board. When advertisers backed off, the arm-twisting began. From the beginning, there was a Friends of Fox list for all camera operators and directors, and the teams on the list received extra exposure. Keep in mind, a primary reason to sponsor a racing team is the value of the TV exposure. When the new TV package was announced, primary sponsors were excited because the value of their marketing dollar grew with the added TV exposure.
Soon the sponsors found out the hard way that unless they spent additional dollars on TV network advertising, they were snubbed on the exposure. If you ever wonder why your favorite driver does not get much air time, see if his sponsor advertises on the networks. Would Michael Waltrip get the same amount of face time on TV if NAPA did not spend the big bucks on network advertising?
The irony lies with the value of the TV exposure. Sponsorships are sold based on the value of exposure during race coverage. That value exceeds the equal amount of commercial ad time. Given the amount of logo exposure during a race, it could be argued that purchasing advertising time during race coverage does not make sense.
The same arm-twisting tactics were used on the tracks and their race sponsors. This led to a lawsuit at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which had a contract with Cracker Barrel for its spring race. Cracker Barrel’s contract was based on the old TV package with logo exposure and title to the race. With the new package, Cracker Barrel had to pony up advertising dollars or the race would be known as the Atlanta 500 to the TV audience. Lawyers had to settle that one.
In the first year there were a significant number of commercials for NASCAR. The commercials were entertaining and ran instead of paid advertisements. Every time a NASCAR spot ran, you can bet the losing-money meter was running.
This is why you see races without sponsors. The networks required the race sponsors to purchase advertising to get mentions and exposures during the race. Losing race and title sponsors hurt tracks, but that was the cost of doing business with the new packages. Once again, the losses by the network created the unintended result of losing race sponsors.
There was an incident at Charlotte where promoter Humpy Wheeler was prepared to hook wreckers to the TV trucks and equipment because his race sponsor would not be mentioned during one of his races. The race sponsor did not purchase an advertising package, so its name would not be part of the network broadcast.
Soon, the new rights packages will be negotiated. Fox and NBC are smarter and know what is fair to offer. Since they’re loaded with knowledge they did not have before, it is reasonable to assume that the bids will be lower. This means the purse money is less, the track’s share will be less, and even the sanctioning body will get less money from the TV contracts.
A significant portion of the Nextel advertising cash will be spent with Fox and NBC. This will help, but is it enough to get the networks in the black? Winston money could not be put on TV, so NASCAR’s Nextel package is designed to offset network losses. When NASCAR and the networks sit down to negotiate, the Nextel money will be a large part of the package.
On a local basis, the Fox and NBC affiliates are finding success with advertising sales, but the cable guys are still kicking serious butt with the number of races on TNT, FX and the others. The cable guys are offering the same number of races at a lower spot rate.
Daytona has announced a marketing package with Disney for the Daytona 500. Disney owns ABC and ESPN, but the Daytona 500 will be televised on NBC in 2004 with the Disney promotion in full swing. You can bet NBC will go out of its way to avoid the Disney promotions whenever possible.
It has been said many times that money is the root of all evil. The TV decisions are all about the money. Disney is paying big bucks for a Daytona promotion, and the TV broadcast will all but snub the mouse by purposefully limiting exposure. NASCAR receives money from both NBC and Disney, so it will win either way.
The moral of this story: Be careful what you wish for. NASCAR was strutting around, bragging about its huge rights fees from the networks. But the trickle-down effect has hurt both car and race sponsorships significantly. The future might be bright, but someone has to pay the light bill.
The following "13 Tough Questions" feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
1. Can the ALLTEL car win the Nextel Cup?
The ALLTEL team, led by Ryan Newman, is the odds-on favorite to win the 2004 Nextel Cup. Newman and his Penske South guys proved they were the cream of the crop last year, and their prospects appear very favorable to repeat their title.
The question is not if they are capable; the question is whether they will play on a level field. Nextel enters the sport in 2004 with cars sponsored by its competitors competing to win the championship the company funds. This could present a unique set of problems. The NASCAR marketing department did a great job in replacing Winston as the long-time series sponsor and preparing Nextel for competing companies in the sport. But Winston did not face this issue.
Will the emergence of Ryan Newman, decked out in the ALLTEL colors, damage the NASCAR/Nextel program the first year out of the box?
The answer is preceded by two questions:
Could they? Can the sanctioning body keep Newman from winning the championship? That answer is a qualified yes. There are more than a couple of ways to keep a car from winning. The inspection process is the most effective way to keep a team down. Many measurements are left to discretion and judgment. If football is a game of inches, racing is a game of ounces and millimeters. The performance of a race car is directly related to how closely the rulebook is followed and how strictly the rules are enforced during inspection.
Any time penalties are handed out by judgment calls there is room to favor, or not to favor, a particular team. If this does not ring a bell, take a look at the yellow line issues involving Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. last season. The majority of participants feel that the two rulings were inconsistent. Marlin got penalized; Junior got a check. This discretion is one way to affect the outcome of a race — or a season.
Add speeding on pit road to this list. There is no way to prove whether a driver did or did not speed. When was the last time you saw a radar gun anywhere near pit road? Worse, there is no appeal process that can take place during a race to rectify a situation such as this. One or two of these incidents can change the outcome of an entire season.
But would they? Most believe NASCAR can and has adversely affected specific teams in the past. Competitors have little or no recourse in these matters. We believe it is doubtful that NASCAR would hinder the performance of the ALLTEL team to prevent Newman from winning a championship, but it does make for interesting water cooler talk. The Nextel folks knew coming in that Newman was quickly becoming the ace of NASCAR’s premier division. He can, and probably will, have a Nextel Cup on his mantle before long. This will cause some red faces if it happens in the first year, but we do not see an effort to prevent what we believe is inevitable. There were red faces at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when the Home Depot car pulled into Victory Lane last season, but embarrassment is nothing new in this sport. The bigger problem we see is that the outcome can be affected, even if it is not.
2. Should Jimmy Spencer have been suspended for punching Kurt Busch?
This is one of those things that NASCAR had to do but probably did not want to. The one-race suspension had no effect on the point standings for the car or driver. Neither would have made the top 25 and finished in the money.
There were sponsor considerations in the mix as well. Sirius sponsors races at Michigan and Watkins Glen (both owned by International Speedway Corporation). Other than that, this suspension happened because the police saw the incident and Jack Roush pushed the issue.
Add this to the well-publicized feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer and the suspension was inevitable. There have been numerous incidents in the sport involving fists, water bottles and an assortment of other objects, although none ended with suspensions. Looking back to the Kevin Harvick/Greg Biffle incident after the Busch race at Bristol in 2002, physical contact between the two was made, television cameras caught the fray and it was every bit as intentional as the Spencer slap. Oddly enough, the incident did not result in a suspension for either driver.
The bottom line is, NASCAR felt it had to put an end to the feud brewing between Spencer and Busch. That, and they knew that with the sport reaching a new base of fans, letting the incident go would not sit well with some.
Did they do the right thing? We don’t think Spencer should have been suspended while Busch only got fined, especially when you consider that bumping someone’s car while running 185 mph is much more dangerous than a punch in the face. Let them race, let them fight and see if the risk of a bloody nose is more of a deterrent for reckless driving than a simple fine.
3. Is aero ruining racing?
Hell yes! Racing is not as exciting as it used to be. Engineers have massaged the cars down to the foot-pound of downforce, causing the smallest wrinkle on the front fender to take a car out of contention. When the engineer becomes more critical than the driver, it’s not racing.
Simply put, the aerodynamics of today’s cars equalize driving talent. As recently as the mid-1990s, young drivers could not compete due to a lack of experience; now the aerodynamic equalizer allows rookies to not only compete, but also win. While new winners are good for the sport, giving up better racing is not a fair trade-off. The number of first-time winners over the last few years could be a direct correlation to the aero packages on the cars today.
There are numerous races where the best car gets caught in traffic and cannot get back to the front. Clean air, dirty air and track position are factors in every race, but today’s cars have to balance front and rear downforce. If the balance is off, the cars will not handle. If you take away front downforce the cars push; with less rear downforce the cars are too loose.
The term “taking air off the rear spoiler” is a prime example. When a trailing car reaches the back bumper of another car, the air passes over the rear spoiler and takes away rear downforce, causing the back end to want to swing out.
The aero push is the same concept. When a trailing car closes on a competitor, the air goes over the hood and decreases front downforce. The trailing car loses grip in the front and cannot advance.
The great equalizer works when the car is in clean air. With proper track position, a less experienced driver or an inferior car can win a race. As a result, track position has won or lost the majority of the races in the last two years.
New rules are on the way to lessen the impact of aerodynamics. Softer tires and less rear spoiler should “mess up” some of the aero. Thus, we should see more finishes based on driver talent and less on wind tunnel technology.
4. Was Dodge right to bump Bill Davis?
This is a tough one. In the 2003 season, two teams lost their factory support for different reasons. The Jasper Motorsports team lost support from Ford for running a Dodge in the fall Talladega race. The Jasper team was way down the list with Ford anyway and did not have much to lose.
The shocker was Dodge dropping Bill Davis for working with Toyota. We are going to side with Dodge on this one. All of the manufacturers in Nextel Cup racing have poured millions of dollars into the sport, and they must protect their investment.
Further, Dodge is the elite Truck manufacturer. For one of their own to aid and abet their biggest foe for the upcoming season was inexcusable.
Dodge, Ford, and GM are not happy that Toyota is coming into the sport. When Dodge pulled factory support for the two Davis teams, Detroit sent a message to all teams of all makes: If you want factory support, you must not do anything that helps the competition.
We question the short-term logic of Davis in jeopardizing his two Cup teams for the Craftsman Truck Series. None of the other Toyota teams for the 2004 truck season race in other series, so they have nothing to lose. Davis now faces the future without substantial support for his Nextel Cup effort.
It is reasonable to assume that Toyota will land with Bill Davis Racing when they expand into Busch and Cup racing in the future. In the meantime, the BDR Nextel car will race without factory support. The arrangement with Toyota should include some support that might carry over to the Cup side of the garage in the future.
5. Is there favoritism in NASCAR?
Over the years there have been accusations of preferential treatment for certain teams and drivers. Fans and the media have voiced various opinions, but the best place for opinions is in the garage. When asked the question, two incidents continually surface. The first is the yellow line infraction at Talladega by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
At the 2003 Daytona 500, Sterling Marlin was penalized for advancing his position by going under the yellow line. It appeared Marlin went low to avoid getting into the back of Elliott Sadler. Later in the year at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. clearly went below the yellow line to make a pass and win the race. While Marlin was penalized, officials gave a pass to NASCAR’s most popular driver and No. 1 souvenir salesman.
Another less-known incident involved Earnhardt again. In the fall Atlanta race, which was run on Monday due to a rain-out, Ricky Rudd spun into the wet front stretch infield. With the infield heavily saturated, it was clear Rudd would have to be towed out. Spotters alerted drivers of the spin, warning of the impending yellow flag. The new rules prohibiting racing back to the yellow caused several drivers to back off. Kurt Busch did not lift and passed a couple of cars coming off turn four. NASCAR had to give cars their laps back and penalized Busch for passing the cars, but the yellow flag was late coming out. The late yellow led to confusion.
Review of the incident found that Earnhardt had entered pit road just before Rudd spun. Many people in the garage felt the yellow flag was late coming out to keep Earnhardt on the lead lap.
Of course we remember Watkins Glen in 2002. With all the cars lined up for a restart with one lap to go, the drivers were warned not to jump the restart. The TV commentators heard these warnings and then discussed where the restart line was. Before they could finish, the leader, Tony Stewart, jumped the gun. The NBC guys fully expected Stewart to get the black flag in light of NASCAR’s warnings. No penalty was assessed and Stewart went on to win the championship by 38 points over Mark Martin.
We also recall a race at Martinsville where Rusty Wallace jumped a late restart, got black-flagged and lost the race. Was this favoritism? You decide. The old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters” should be changed to “It’s not what was done, it’s who did it that matters.”
6. Was Kevin Harvick grandstanding in the incidents with Ricky Rudd and Greg Biffle?
Yes, and here are the facts. Kevin Harvick accosted Greg Biffle after a Busch race in Bristol in 2002. During the race, Harvick made contact with Biffle and ended up in the wall and out of the race. Harvick waited on the wall of his pit box until the end of the race. When Biffle got out of his car on pit road, Harvick ran across pit road and dove over the hood of the car and grabbed Biffle around the collar.
Then this year at Richmond, Harvick jumped out of his car and started a near-riot on pit road after a late-race altercation that knocked him out of the race. There are many photographs of an angry Harvick standing on his car screaming at Ricky Rudd. This ended a great run and a top 5 finish.
Harvick had the cameras and a national TV audience for both cases. Many competitors throw him under the bus on this one. The terms “showboat” and “immature” are mentioned a great deal when talking about these incidents. On both occasions, Harvick embarrassed himself, Richard Childress and his team.
We wonder if Harvick would have approached Rudd if there were no cameras or anyone to break up a potential fight. We don’t think so. This goes back to maturity. Harvick constantly gets into trouble and almost thrives on being the bad boy.
His one-race suspension for the truck race incident at Martinsville was a wake-up call, but Harvick hit the snooze button and went on his way. Dale Earnhardt was known as The Intimidator; Harvick is trying to be an imitator — but falls short.
7. Will Jeff Gordon be a better driver now that he is single again?
There are two Jeff Gordons. One was married and shackled; the other is single and free. We wonder which one is the better race car driver. Without getting into the reasons for the divorce, we see the single Jeff definitely having more fun.
Fun has little to do with winning races, but it can change attitudes and mindset. The old Gordon was almost a recluse and rarely seen out on his own. The new and improved Gordon is loose and happy. The fact that the legal stuff and tabloid reports are over also makes life easier.
Any time that an ordeal of this nature comes to a conclusion, the person involved has to have a great feeling of relief. Now that the ball-and-chain has been removed, we should see a different person and a different race car driver. We predict that the best of Gordon as a driver has yet to be seen.
8. Has Kurt Busch learned anything about maturity after a year of embarrassments?
Kurt Busch has just completed a tough season. He started the year with strong finishes, including three wins in the first 15 races. Then a stretch of bad luck and crashes took Busch from second in the points to ninth by July. At the Michigan race in August, Busch sideswiped Jimmy Spencer’s car, trying to ruin the fenders, affect aerodynamics and possibly causing a tire rub.
It is one thing to bump, trade paint and race hard, but Busch had nothing to gain from the incident. His biggest mistake was openly discussing his intent on the radio for all to hear. When the tape surfaced, Busch looked like an idiot.
After the race, he got a slap to the face that bloodied his nose and left a shiner. Some say he deserved it, and most sided with Spencer. The idiotic statements caught on tape cost him the respect of almost every one of his competitors on the circuit. Some drivers offered to pay Spencer’s fine, and fans made Busch the target of the most boos on the circuit.
Fittingly, the sponsors sat him down for a chewing, both in private and in public. Even his teammates could not defend Busch’s immature behavior. When Busch, in the Sharpie car, won the Sharpie 500 at Bristol, the boo-birds were overwhelmingly loud. The Sharpie people were stunned by the negative response to their driver on what could have been a career-changing day. Needless to say, sponsors are not happy when their driver is seen as a liability.
After the Bristol win, Busch disappeared off the radar screen. Bad finishes and more motor problems dropped him out of the top 10.
At Martinsville, Busch blew another motor, came down pit road and spun in the oil. Once again, his immaturity took over and he lit up the car and spun again in complete disregard for his and other pit crews. NASCAR took a dim view and invited crew chief, owner and driver to the red trailer for a sit-down. Busch either did not hear the request or blew it off.
The next week in Atlanta, Busch had his NASCAR license taken. He had to go through the credential line to gain admission to the pits and garage. This was merely a slap on the wrist, but it was a huge inconvenience for Busch.
Nextel Cup racing is for adults. Other young drivers have figured out how to get along; why can’t Busch? He had the luxury of seeing Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart act up and pay the price, but it appears he did not pay attention.
Busch is a driver who did not pay his dues like his elder drivers. Most drivers in their 40s spent years driving second-rate, underfinanced equipment, while Busch started his Cup career in a winning car. There is an underlying resentment toward the young, cocky and arrogant drivers on the circuit. It is hard to justify his behavior, and it costs his team in the long run. This is the one sport where the respect of your competitors and fans can affect a career, and we are not sure Busch is mature enough to understand the basics of getting along in this sport.
9. Are ticket sales declining?
Watch a race on TV and you will quickly notice the number of commercials for tickets to upcoming races. This is a new and very necessary development. Only a few tracks sell out all of their races, and as the realignment talks continue, this issue gets more pressing.
There are several factors that have led to empty seats at tracks that used to sell out. The economic conditions can’t be blamed for everything. To determine the cause of the decline we need to identify the three types of ticket buys for Nextel Cup races.
- The race fan: Joe Six-Pack goes with his family or buddies to a race or two each season. He buys and pays for his four tickets around nine months before the race on an annual renewal.
- The local business uses tickets for employees and to entertain customers at the race in the area. Sometimes they utilize hospitality packages that include food, beverages, and more. Each local business is good for 20-100 tickets per race.
- National corporate accounts purchase hundreds of tickets at multiple tracks across the country. Most of these corporations sponsor cars and most of the time they host their customers and guests with structured at-the-track hospitality. These are the tents you see in restricted areas just outside the grandstands. The hospitality package can run as much as $350 per person, not including the gouging by the hotels.
Joe Six-Pack has economic factors to consider every year at renewal time. The economy has been unkind to some, jobs have changed, children are born and priorities change. And when a race fan elects not to renew for one season, he is more than likely to stay away in future years. Getting him back can be very difficult.
The distance from the track is another issue. Overnight accommodations are budget-killers for the average race fans. Most hotels jack up room rates and require two- or three-night minimums for a race weekend. Charging race fans $250 dollars for a room that is $49 come Monday night, can be prohibitive.
After the economic issues come the boring racing that has emerged with all the aerodynamic hocus-pocus. Many long-time fans are burned out by the lack of actual racing on the track.
The local corporate customers face the same economic factors as Joe Six-Pack, but they are also faced with redundancy. You can only entertain the same customers so many times with the same thing. Customers who are not race fans are usually good for only one or two outings. In the days of budget cuts, every dollar has to have maximum impact. To be blunt, if you are not a die-hard fan, once you have seen one race, you have seen them all.
National corporate customers who purchase hundreds of tickets are declining in number for several reasons. Tickets and hospitality packages are purchased to enhance and increase business. When business declines, these are the first cuts. Instead of purchasing 400 at a particular track, they might cut 100 from the annual ticket buy. Multiply this by dozens of customers and you get thousands of available tickets.
The arrogance and poor customer relations of the tracks have added to the decline. The cost of doing business goes up every year, with no improvement in the product. This sounds like a harsh indictment of the tracks, but if you listen to the corporate customers, they will echo these comments. The tracks are responsible for most of their own problems. The needs of corporate customers have been ignored for years while constant price increases have shrunk the numbers. When all tracks sold out there was no need for good customer service.
Poor customer service, economics and follow- the-leader racing has run off thousands of ticket buyers in the last few years. If NASCAR fixes the problems with racing on the track, people will come back. Follow the leader does not sell tickets; passing the leader will.
Race tickets used to be a sellers’ market. Not anymore.
10. Will Rusty win again?
This is a repeat question from our 2003 Racing Annual. We predicted at least one win for Rusty Wallace a year ago, but we reverse course in 2004 and predict that he will once again miss out on a visit to Victory Lane.
Wallace didn’t do much in 2003 to give us reason to believe. The Miller Lite Team had a car to win in three or four races only to self-destruct.
His is now the secondary team at Penske South, and that creates a new set of problems. In looking at the record books, Wallace has fared much better without teammates. And starting over with a new crew chief in 2004 should put the team behind to begin the year.
Wallace has led the effort to change the rules to bring the cars back to him, instead of working to catch up to the leaders. We expect Wallace to improve over last year, but this team is always capable of snatching defeat from jaws of victory.
11. What effect will Toyota have on NASCAR?
Toyota will have both good and bad effects on all divisions of NASCAR. The level of competition in the Craftsman Truck Series will be better, and that is a good thing.
Toyota plans to dominate the truck series, and that makes everyone nervous as they look ahead to the time when Toyota enters the other series. Toyota’s entrance to American stock car racing will increase the cost of doing business for all teams. The sport is already financially strapped and plagued by decreasing sponsorship, and now Daddy Warbucks is showing up to further strain the teams.
It is expected that Toyota will bring huge dollars to its teams, which will force existing manufacturers to step up to keep up. General Motors and Ford went through this when Dodge threw its money around.
It is reasonable to assume that the manufacturers will circle the wagons, and fewer teams will get full support. The losers will be the teams that get shut out.
Everyone will be watching the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and how Toyota operates in the first year. If they dominate and run the lesser teams out of business, the war will begin. Other manufacturers might cut their losses and run. In the long term, that will be a disaster.
NASCAR is known to look at short-term profit without considering long-term results. If Toyota runs teams out of business, the results might be unintended but shouldn’t be unexpected.
12. Why not use the red flag when a driver is in danger?
The racing back to the caution rule was changed last year, but we ask, why?
The yellow flag is for the safety of the driver. Racing and passing are not important compared to the safety of the drivers. So why not use the red flag when a driver is in jeopardy?
The Dale Jarrett incident at New Hampshire led to the rule change, and other crashes and incidents have caused a great deal of concern. Racing back to the line has always been a part of the sport and in most cases there is no danger. When there is danger, such as with Jarrett’s incident, use the red flag, freeze the field and no one gets a lap back. If there is a harmless spin or debris on the track, throw the yellow and race back to the line.
Looking back at the 2003 season, there were several hard crashes and fires that should have resulted in a red flag. Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman were involved with fires and needed a quick exit. This type of incident needs a red flag so all competitors know that a driver is in danger. When this occurs, all cars should slow to a crawl to allow safety crews to roll.
On the other hand, if there is debris on the track, throw the yellow and race to the line. If this were the case we would not need a lucky dog or scoring disputes.
We cannot find a driver who does not agree. The red is one of seven flags; it means danger but it’s not used when there is danger to a driver. Tiger Woods uses all the clubs in his golf bag. Why doesn’t NASCAR use all their flags?
13. What will softer tires do for the sport?
At the urging of several drivers, NASCAR wants to soften the compounds for the Goodyear racing tires for the 2004 Nextel Cup season. It is no secret that racing has become a little boring in the last few years. The most critical strategy is to get and maintain track position. With today’s aerodynamics and the harder tires it is difficult to pass. Most races are won or lost on track position.
In the old days, teams could bolt on four new tires and race through the pack. With softer tires the difference in lap times between new and old tires is greater. If a car stays out on older tires while others pit, he will be a sitting duck when the green flag drops.
With the harder tire, the lap times are closer between new and old tires, making staying out on the track a solid strategy. We remember races when drivers raced through the field because they had the best tires.
Drivers and fans are starting to complain about the follow-the-leader racing. The excitement level for fans is at an all-time low, and the frustration of drivers stuck in traffic is at an all-time high. There is an increased number of wrecks in Nextel Cup racing, with part of the reason being the inability to pass due to the hard tires and aerodynamics.
Let these guys race. The show will improve, and strategy decisions will be made on racing faster, not longer.
BONUS! Is it time to throw away the plates?
Ask the drivers, and they will tell you they are ready to race and get rid of the plates. But with the current configuration of Daytona and Talladega, the plates are a must. Insurance requirements keep the cars under 200 mph. To get rid of the plates, these two tracks would have to be changed.
International Speedway Corporation owns Daytona and Talladega along with Homestead-Miami. They spent millions adding banks to Homestead without safety issues. Why can’t they spend money for the safety of drivers and fans?
The racing would be better with fewer wrecks. The slingshot pass might return and follow-the-leader racing might be a thing of the past. The overwhelming majority of the drivers do not like plate racing. It costs teams way too much money and forces racers to simply become drivers until the white flag waves. Unfortunately, though, they currently have no choice.
There are two solutions that would eliminate plate racing at these two tracks. The banks can be cut down or the seats can be moved away from the track. Both will cost money, but how much money is spent repairing and replacing torn-up race cars?
The teams and sponsors pay every day. The tracks, on the other hand, can fix the problem by spending a one-time-only lump sum.
The following article was originally published in 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Tony Stewart, the 2002 Cup champion, finished sixth in the 2004 standings after winning races at Chicagoland Speedway and Watkins Glen, bringing his career total to 19 victories in stock car racing’s top series.
Stewart was not happy with his season, however. The Chase for the Nextel Cup format, with a champion determined by the season’s final 10 races, seemed made to order for Stewart, who had a history of closing fast in his Cup career. But Stewart was never really a factor in the Chase.
Stewart returns to the No. 20 Chevrolet owned by Joe Gibbs, with Greg Zipadelli as his crew chief, for his seventh season of Cup competition in 2005. Stewart sat down with Athlon Sports to talk about where he’s been and where he hopes to go in the sport.
Athlon Sports: Look back at the 2004 season for a minute. You won two races and made the Chase for the Nextel Cup. But you got wrecked in the first Chase race at New Hampshire and then never really got untracked after that.
Tony Stewart: I don’t think there were very many highlights for us, to be honest. I think we had a very terrible season. It wasn’t our worst finish in the point standings, but we just really never had that pizzazz we’ve had in the past in the second half of the season. We didn’t have it in the first half, either. I really felt like our whole Joe Gibbs Racing organization struggled and we’ve got a lot of improving to do for 2005.
AS: What went wrong?
Stewart: Well, if we knew the reason we would have fixed it by now. I can promise you that one reason wasn’t due to a lack of determination and effort on our team’s part. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing has dug their heels in, but we just couldn’t find that missing piece to the equation. I can promise you that when we do, we will be back on form again, and after having a year like we had in 2004, if we can get it back on track in 2005, we’ll be tough to beat.
AS: Have you made any major changes in the team for 2005?
Stewart: Personnel-wise, we’ll be the same. That’s something I am really proud of. Our team has stayed intact through the whole time I’ve been there. We’ve only had a couple of changes. All we’ve done is add people. Everybody will have to make changes for 2005 because of the different rules package, but you just have to go out and do the work and see what you can do.
AS: What would you do to change the way the Nextel Cup champion is now determined?
Stewart: It’s not my job to do that. I’m a race car driver. It’s hard enough just trying to concentrate on doing my job each week, let alone trying to do NASCAR’s job for them. I think they do a pretty good job on their own. We don’t need to be promoters, we don’t need to be NASCAR. That’s why they pay guys like Mike Helton the big money they pay him — to worry about those problems.
AS: You won a championship under the former system and Kurt Busch won his under the Chase system. How much respect do you have for what he accomplished in 2004?
Stewart: If you look at some of the problems he had in the last 10 races, there were three or four times where he had to bounce back and overcome problems. That’s what you have to do to win any championship. He performed well when he didn’t have problems, and in the races where he did, he rebounded and performed well in some of those. You have to give him a lot of respect.
AS: Which was harder to win, the championship under the system in which you won it or under the system in 2004?
Stewart: I don’t know. Every year is so different. It’s really hard to say. If you could put back-to-back two identical years it would be easier to compare. I think the whole moral to the story is that we all know what the system is going into the season. It is what it is and we aren’t going to change it. We couldn’t if we wanted to. It’s fair for everybody. There’s nothing that’s unfair about the system. We know what it is and it’s our job to go out and do the best we can with it.
AS: You’ve had your share of disagreements with NASCAR, with fellow competitors and with members of the media over your years in the sport, and sometimes you’ve gotten in hot water over some of those. Last year, though, you had a chance to be sort of a bystander and see the controversy that followed a 25-point penalty against Dale Earnhardt Jr. for using a four-letter word in Victory Lane. What was your view of that situation? Did you have empathy for Dale Jr.?
Stewart: I think that was highly blown way out of proportion. I think we’re starting to nit-pick and scrutinize way too much in this series. Since when does something that somebody says have an effect on winning the championship? And when should it have that effect? From the time that car goes through tech, to the time that checkered flag drops — any time in that period where anything that happens can affect how the race was run — that’s when points should be taken away, not something that happens before that period and not anything that happens after that period.
The last time I checked, we had freedom of speech, correct? Since when has that changed now? I didn’t know the Constitution changed. What Dale Jr. said didn’t cheat anybody on the race track. It didn’t have any effect on how the race was run.
Where is the process going to stop? What’s going to be the next thing now? If we don’t show up to the car for practice on time are we going to lose 25 points for that next? Where is it realistically going to end?
AS: Let’s talk about some of the things you’ve faced in NASCAR. Do you feel like people already have their minds made up about you in a way that makes any incident that happens anywhere around you automatically your fault?
Stewart: I don’t think it’s me on the track that has given me two strikes (against me), I think it’s the way I’ve handled things off the track that has given me those strikes. Just like the deal at Chicago (where Kasey Kahne wrecked after contact from Stewart on a restart). If NASCAR thought I did something wrong, they would have done something obviously. I talked to NASCAR, Kasey talked to NASCAR, (and) their explanation of what happened in what they showed me backed up exactly what I said happened. I stuck to my guns saying I didn’t do anything wrong. The reason I did that was because I didn’t do anything wrong.
At the same time, if I do something off the track, I know I’ve got those two strikes on me already. This is not the deal to go through as a driver. It’s not just about driving race cars any more — that’s the way up to this point it’s always been. Now, we’re representing multi-billion dollar companies and we have a TV package. NASCAR is very image-conscious now, which they haven’t always been.
Driving the race car, which is what I got hired to do in the first place, and what I have been doing the past 25 years of my life, is only a fractional part of my overall job as a Nextel Cup driver. There’s a lot more changes that go on in your life than the media could understand in one conversation. It’s something you really have to be behind the scenes. You need to live it and breathe for more than a day or two or a week to fully understand what all is involved in it.
AS: To a degree, is it OK with you if you get a “bad boy” label hung on you?
Stewart: Look at wrestling. If you had all the popular guys, the “good” guys in the sport, and you had them wrestling each other each week, I’m not sure it would be as appealing to the fans as if you got somebody that people like and somebody that they dislike. So I think that adds flavor to the sport. I don’t really take it personal. I don’t think it’s a personal deal; it’s just a title that’s given to many of us. I guess I lead the pack of the bad boy group. I think there are fans out there that are looking for that guy. Dale Earnhardt didn’t get his reputation or popularity by being a good guy. He got it by being aggressive, and he was probably the bad boy in his era. So I don’t think it’s such a bad thing after all.
AS: At times you’ve hinted that the frustrations of dealing with the rigors of being a Cup driver might just lead you to get out of NASCAR and just go race sprint cars somewhere. Is that really something you think about doing?
Stewart: No, not necessarily. I think there are days that I’m frustrated and I feel that way, but I think there are more days that I wake up and it just doesn’t bother me anymore. We’ve been through so much controversy in my whole career in the Cup series, I’m just kind of numb to it all I guess, so to speak.
It’s not a distraction to me; it’s not an aggravation to me. I’ve found a way to simplify everything and not worry about it. Controversy is controversy; it’s just something for people to read in the paper and something for them to talk about. When I’m in the race car, I mean, my job is to go out and win the race and that’s what my passion and desire is whether it’s in a midget or in a sprint car or in the Nextel Cup car. At the end of the day I still get a paycheck and still have a job that I thoroughly enjoy.
I guess I’ve come to the realization that I’ve learned what my role is here. Every other series that I was a part of, the drivers had a lot of input and the officials really worked with them. At this level, it’s done in a totally different situation. You realize it doesn’t matter what your opinion is. They don’t care about your opinion. I think that’s why this series has been as successful as it is too, because they’ve stuck to their core organizing skills. This formula they’ve had for over 50-plus years has been pretty successful. So I guess I’m not as frustrated as I used to be because I’ve realized that’s partly why it’s gotten where it has is because they’ve done it their way and not listened to everybody else who has come and gone throughout the series.
AS: Your love for sprint-car racing is well known. You own U.S. Auto Club and World of Outlaws series sprint car teams and work on - and drive - those cars whenever you can squeeze it into your schedule that’s choked with Nextel Cup commitments. And now, you’ve purchased one of the most revered dirt tracks in the United States, historic Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, from the legendary Earl Baltes, who retired. Did you do that because you want to protect the legacy of a place that is so much a part of the history in a part of racing that’s so dear to your heart?
Stewart: I think that’s why Earl and Bernice had the confidence and why Earl came to me and said he’d really like me to have that place. I think Earl knows I respect the history of the sport and the history of his speedway. I will do everything I can to take what Earl has built and not change it a lot. I don’t want to take things away to put something else in place, I just want to take what’s there and add to it. I think there’s a great foundation there, and with my popularity in NASCAR I think we can take some of that and help attract sponsors to the speedway and attract a new breed of race fans who’ve never heard or Eldora or gone to a race there. Hopefully we can take the success there and build on it.
AS: There are hundreds of race tracks around the country, many of which you’ve raced on. What makes Eldora so special?
Stewart: I have never been to a race at Eldora where people didn’t have a good time. Even if the track isn’t prepared the best as it has been or they had bad weather, everybody always found a way to have a good time. Eldora kind of allows you to let your hair down. It’s not so sponsor-driven to where you’re being force-fed from that standpoint. It’s sort of like going to the Kentucky Derby, sometimes people couldn’t tell you who won the Derby, but they can tell you how much fun they had. Eldora is like a happening. They can tell you who won the race, I can promise you that, but it’s just the atmosphere around it, an aura you don’t find at a lot of tracks across the country. It’s just a special place.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Last winter, when NASCAR changed the point system that had been in effect since 1972, the naysayers were very vocal. Matt Kenseth saw the change as an attack on his less-than-thrilling championship season. Preseason favorite Ryan Newman thought the new system was a communist plot. Several members of the media were proposing scenarios that would spell doom for the new system.
Let’s take a look at four elements that will determine the success of the new point system.
1. How was the competition to get in the top 10 by race 26 at Richmond?
Only four drivers were in the top 10 in the points standings for each of the first 26 races. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart left the Daytona 500 in the top 10 and held a spot until the end.
Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick all hovered around the top 10 throughout most of the season. All four were in contention to qualify for the Chase heading into the Richmond event, but each ran into problems that prevented them from making the cut.
The story of the season had to be Mark Martin. After starting the season with a blown engine at Daytona that relegated him to 43rd place in the standings, Martin squeezed into the royal 10 after the September race at Richmond. Martin started the Richmond race with just a 25-point cushion and needed a strong finish to make the Chase. He did so, finishing fifth.
Jeremy Mayfield also provided some excitement at Richmond by leading the most laps and winning the event to qualify him for the Chase.
When the green flag dropped for race 26 at Richmond, there were four spots available and nine drivers with a mathematical chance to make the cut.
The new system was created to add excitement to the final stages of the season and it did so, as the race to get in the Chase went down to the last laps at Richmond. We declare this segment a huge success.
2. Did the race for 11th place and the million dollar bonus create excitement?
After the Chase for the Championship was set, the race was on for 11th place. After Richmond, Jamie McMurray held the coveted spot, with five drivers within striking distance. The race for the bonus was shaping up to be as good, or better than, the race for the Nextel Cup itself.
However, McMurray turned this into a runaway, with 10 straight lead lap finishes, and cruised to a crushing 320-point rout for the million bucks.
Although this race was not as exciting, Bobby Labonte, in 12th place, was just 63 points ahead of Dale Jarrett, who finished in 15th place.
We will call this element a draw, thanks to McMurray, who spoiled the excitement.
3. Did several teams have a shot at the Championship in the final race at Homestead?
Going into Homestead, five teams were within 82 points of the lead. Realistically, only Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had a shot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin needed the top three teams to melt down in order to claim the championship.
The final race had a little of everything and was the most exciting finale since 1992. NASCAR wanted the points race to go down to the wire and that is what it got. This element gets a resounding yes for success.
4. Did the new format prevent points racing?
This answer is both yes and no. In the late summer, the teams that were at the front could relax. Many think the Hendrick teams experimented with their engines because of their cushion on the 10th-place driver.
When it was show time, the top 5 teams had to race harder than normal in their effort to win the Championship. The team that won the most races did not win the Championship, which would have been a bonus. We did learn one thing: Jimmie Johnson proved you could come back from more than one bad race to contend in the Chase. Johnson recovered from 247 points out, losing the title by eight to Busch.
The racing was harder, more intense and more exciting than we have seen in years.
We see the overall program as a huge success. Almost everyone will agree but Jeff Gordon, who would have won under the old format.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Since its inception, NASCAR and good ol’ boys have been inextricably linked. Over the course of the next two seasons, though, the good boys driving on the circuit will become significantly less ol’. Come 2006, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott — who between them have won over 150 races and four championships — will be retired. Two-time Daytona 500 champ Sterling Marlin, 1999 series champ Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Jimmy Spencer, Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader won’t be far behind, leaving the sport in the hands of a group of talented racers who will give it a decidedly new face. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might shill for Wrangler, but the days of being able to find more than a couple of drivers who actually wear them are numbered.
A changing of the guard is nothing new in NASCAR, where turnover often occurs in large chunks. Between 1964 and 1966 three former champs — Ned Jarrett, Lee Petty and Rex White — retired and two more, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, were killed. Junior Johnson, arguably NASCAR’s best driver who somehow never won a championship, retired two years later. Two decades later the same thing happened when a trio of ex-champs hung up their helmets in 1988: Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough. Donnie Allison also raced for the last time that year, and three-time champ David Pearson called it quits in ‘86.
But when those greats left the circuit, they were replaced, for the most part, by younger versions of themselves. That’s not been the case with the new generation. Wallace, the 1989 series champ, is pals with Brooks and Dunn; Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champ, is often given CDs of his favorite band, Metallica, by fans. Marlin is a civil war history buff (a fan once asked him to autograph a bullet) whose idea of fun is messing around with friends on tractors on his farm; young driver Brendan Gaughan, on the other hand, was pals with Allen Iverson when the two played basketball at Georgetown.
For all the attention the young guns get, the kids haven’t completely taken over the sport, though. The average age of the starting field at the Daytona 500 was 35.5 in 1984; in ‘94 it was 37. In 2004 it was a hair under 36. The difference lies in how the youngsters have performed. In ‘84, only four drivers under 35 — including Elliott, Rudd and Dale Earnhardt — finished in the top 10 at Daytona. In ‘94 there was only one, Jeff Gordon. Last year, however, eight of the top 10 finishers in the 500 were 32 or younger. And of the 10 drivers in the Chase for the Championship, only one was older than 33. It’s not as if the older guys can’t drive; Wallace — who said Earnhardt’s death in 2000 got him thinking about retiring — is still one of the most dangerous short-track drivers around. Labonte won the 2003 Southern 500, the last one held on Labor Day weekend. And the 48-year-old Jarrett, who has no plans to stop driving any time soon, had six top 5s last year.
“I don’t think there’s anything that a guy that’s 20 or 25 can do in a race car that I can’t,” Jarrett said.
Rather, the emergence of the young guns lies at least partly in the fact that sponsors like their ability to connect with fans — potentially new ones — giving owners of the top teams an incentive to seek out young talent and give the kids a shot.
Just don’t expect the current crop of young drivers to enjoy the longevity of the stars they are replacing. Asked recently what he’d be doing in 20 years, Kenseth, 32, said, “I won’t be doing this anymore, for sure. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great career already, and I hope I can be competitive and race for another 10 years or so.”
The money’s too good nowadays, for starters, giving them an incentive to get out and spend some of it. (The $9.6 million Kurt Busch received for winning the Nextel Cup last year was 30 times what Buck Baker won in his entire 631-race, 28-year career, which ended in 1976. Dave Marcis, an old-timer who drove in wingtip shoes, finished last in the ‘84 Daytona 500 and won $14,300; Martin received a check for $216,997 for finishing dead last in 2004.) And sponsors are investing so much money they’re going to be less likely to tolerate mediocre results from a driver on the downside of his career. So the current ongoing exodus of graying drivers will probably be the last time this many racers who have driven so well for so long will exit the sport at the same time.
Getting them out has not been an easy task. When they were looking to break into the sport, the notion of a 25-year-old hopping into a top seat was unheard of. There was one way to get a good ride: race anywhere, any time and prove they had what it took.
“That’s what I’ve lived my life 30 years to do,” said Martin, who will retire after the 2005 season. “It’s about the races to me. It has always been.”
And it’s not as if the amount of hair on one’s head is directly proportionate to the speed at which one makes it around the track. Martin, 46, came within 38 points of winning the Championship in 2002, and last year he was the only driver over 33 to qualify for the Chase for Championship. His decision to retire was based on his desire to leave at his peak.
“One of the reasons for my stepping out of the Cup series at this time is because I was never really convinced deep down inside that I was all that good,” the ever-modest Martin said. “I think I’ve fooled a lot of people for a long, long time, and I want to step out while I’m at the top of my game. I wanted to go out that way instead of on the decline.”
So what will NASCAR lose with the departure of its old-gun generation?
A link to its past
Kyle Petty hasn’t announced any plans regarding his long-term future, but he’s 44 and hasn’t won a race since 1995. Considering his copious workload at Petty Enterprises, it’s likely he’ll give up driving before too long. And when he does, NASCAR will, for the first time in its nearly 60-year history, not have a Petty driving. His grandfather Lee was at the very first race in 1949 (as was his father, Richard, who was a 12-year-old crew member). Richard and Lee overlapped for six years, and Kyle and Richard raced against each other for 14 years.
Perhaps NASCAR’s biggest moment of the past 20 years was Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the 1998 Daytona 500, which broke his 0-for-18 streak in the race and prompted crew members from every team to line his route to Victory Lane, slapping fives with the Intimidator as he drove by. When the green flag falls on the 2007 Daytona 500, it’s likely that fewer than 10 drivers who were on the track that day in ‘98 will be in the race.
“Nowadays the sport is a lot different,” Wallace said last fall after telling a story about being chased by a group of angry Earnhardt fans after he wrecked the Intimidator back in the day. “Some people care about those stories and some of the young ones don’t care about ‘em.”
Its unpredictability and color
The event that put NASCAR on the map was the 1979 Daytona 500, the first race aired live from flag-to-flag on network television. On the final lap, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison banged fenders so hard racing for the lead that they crashed into the Turn 3 outside wall before sliding down to the infield. Richard Petty blew past them to win the race, but the real show came seconds after he crossed the finish line, when Yarborough got into a brawl with Allison and his brother, Bobby.
For many longtime fans much of the allure of NASCAR was the sense that any week anything might happen. The drivers were unpredictable, less worried about offending their sponsors and the sensibilities of whoever might be watching. Sure, there are still occasional heated moments (and there will be as long as Kevin Harvick is around), but the sport will lose the last of its true characters when Jimmy Spencer stops racing. Aptly nicknamed Mr. Excitement, Spencer has an uncertain future in light of his dismissal from his ride last fall following his arrest for interfering with police officers who were trying to arrest his son. Spencer, 47, was never afraid of anyone on the track or off it; his feud with Kurt Busch culminated with Spencer punching Busch following a race in 2003, which got him suspended for a race. Nor was Spencer ever afraid to speak his mind, a refreshing trait in NASCAR’s milquetoast era. When it was announced that Toyota was going to enter NASCAR, Spencer spoke out against the company, reminding people that Japan “bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t forget.”
Impolitic? Yes. Amusing? Even moreso.
Its old-school, blue-collar work ethic
So much of being a NASCAR driver nowadays is handling off-track responsibilities. Tony Stewart is known for showing up at any track that will have him, but he’s got nothing on Schrader, who at 50 is NASCAR’s oldest regular driver. By his own estimate, Schrader has driven at nearly 300 tracks in his career. There’s hardly a rinky-dink dirt track in the Midwest where he hasn’t run — and he even owns a 1/3-mile track in his home state of Missouri.
Sure, the desire to race and be near the action infects in every driver, but the strain that affects Schrader and his cohorts is especially virulent. So don’t expect the big names to exit the sport for good. Wallace owns a Busch team that started racing last year and may well add another next season. He intends to be a hands-on owner, and he plans to increase his ownership role with his current Cup outfit, Penske Racing.
“I’ve got a great big, cool office in the new building that (Penske is) going to have in Charlotte, and I plan to spend a lot of time there and do what I can do to help our whole operation,” he said.
He also has a 17-year-old son who is working his way up the ranks in the Hooters Pro Series. Sterling Marlin and Dale Jarrett also have sons driving in NASCAR’s minor league ranks, so they’ll be getting some track time in the proud-parent role. So will Labonte, whose son Justin will drive a full Busch schedule in 2005 for a team co-owned by his dad. “I said when I announced that I was cutting back on my racing that much of the free time it would create for me would be devoted to helping Justin with his driving career,” said Labonte, who will ease into retirement by driving a part-time Cup schedule in 2005.
Martin’s son Matt is also serious about his racing, but he’s not as close to the Nextel Cup series — he’s just 13. But he already has his own website and a deal with Ford Racing, which underscores just how much stock car racing has evolved since his father broke into the sport. Not only are adolescents being touted as the next big thing, but there’s no more Southern 500 on Labor Day, no more Rockingham, no more North Wilkesboro. And in a couple years there won’t be a coterie of veteran drivers who thrived on the track and helped shepherd NASCAR as it grew into the phenomenon it has become. But for now they’re still behind the wheels of their cars, running their final laps, out there to be appreciated one last time.
Article originally published in 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Should Junior’s expletive have cost him 25 points and had a potentially significant effect on the Championship?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the most popular driver award and uttered the most popular four-letter word in the process. When Junior had his slip of the tongue at Talladega, NASCAR lowered the boom. That boom was 25 points.
When the utterance from the gutterance occurred with just seven races remaining to decide the first NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion, Earnhardt went from 13 points ahead to 12 points behind. Naturally, this became a hot topic. If the Budweiser team lost the Cup by 25 points or less, Earnhardt’s fans would have been up in arms, and the 2004 Champion would have been listed with an asterisk.
A huge bullet was dodged when Junior faded down the stretch and finished in fifth place, 138 points off the pace.
Did NASCAR officials do the right thing? You’re #@%$ straight they did. Earlier in the season, they penalized two drivers in the Busch Series for the same offense, so NASCAR painted itself into a corner. It had no choice but to pull the trigger on the circuit’s most popular driver, no matter what ramifications it would have on the Chase for the Championship.
You have to give NASCAR credit. The easy path would have been to give Junior a pass and not make waves. Earnhardt was wrong — he is an adult and should know better. With so much at stake, you can’t do anything to jeopardize your team’s chances at a title.
NASCAR is a better sport because of the penalty. The NBA has players fighting with fans and embarrassing themselves and their sport. NASCAR, as a sport, will not tolerate the slightest offense. You can bet every driver, crew chief and owner knows to clean up that mouth. Luckily, the 25 points did not matter in the final standings. No harm, no foul language.
2. Is it time to change the way pit road speed is measured?
Ever watch the in-car telemetry during a race? Ever wonder why it is never on the screen during pit stops? Because NASCAR does not allow it. The facts are simple; the technology is available to take away any doubt as to whether a driver is speeding on pit road. Instead, NASCAR uses stopwatches to time the cars between lines painted on pit road, a system that is as antiquated as smoke signals.
During the final 10 races of the season, when every point counted, the 2004 Championship was decided on pit road by a stopwatch. Jimmie Johnson was a frontrunner at the fall Dover race until he was busted on pit road for speeding. Johnson and crew were adamant that they had not sped, but there was no proof either way. At least a state trooper will show you the radar gun. With NASCAR, you are speeding when NASCAR says you are. That type of officiating leads to doubt, and doubt leads to mistrust. With so much on the line, that is unacceptable. The Dover penalty cost Johnson a lap and well more than eight points by the end of the day.
By using the already-present transponders and in-car telemetry, NASCAR could alleviate any doubts. The fact that the technology is here and NASCAR refuses to put down the watch is the problem. So the tougher question is: Why doesn’t NASCAR use the technology? The Politically Incorrect answer is that NASCAR would lose control.
3. Who won the Darrell Waltrip/Tony Stewart feud?
It started with comments from the booth. The Fox crew, led by Darrell Waltrip, criticized Tony Stewart for his intentional punting of Andy Hillenburg in the opening laps at the Darlington spring event. Hillenburg was a field filler who was having problems meeting the minimum speed requirement. Instead of making a clean pass when he ran up on Hillenburg, Stewart wrecked him. As if the initial wreck were not scary enough, Jeff Gordon t-boned the spinning Hillenburg, leaving both cars demolished and everyone breathing a sigh of relief when both drivers walked away.
Waltrip did not like what he saw and proceeded to say so. Over the next few weeks Stewart was, as Waltrip put it, the ‘common denominator’ in a series of on-track skirmishes. The more incidents Stewart was involved in, the more DW spoke his mind.
Stewart finally got his shot to respond in a pre-race interview at Richmond, and he took personal shots at Waltrip on live television.
So did Waltrip have the right to criticize Stewart’s antics? Yes. Other pro sports commentators tell it like it is. Waltrip had the right to drop the hammer on Stewart just like Dick Vitale has the right to question an on-court incident at a college basketball game. Hundreds, if not thousands, agreed with what Waltrip said; he just happened to be the one with the microphone. Waltrip simply spoke his mind, while others skirted the issue.
Stewart’s immature method of handling the conflict reflects negatively on him, his team, his owner and his sponsor. Trying to publicly embarrass a racing icon is poor sportsmanship at best, but it follows a pattern for Stewart when he has come under fire in the past for his actions. Tony always asks for a pass when his behavior is called into question, and he jumped on DW for not giving it to him.
So who won the feud? We’ll give this one to DW, if for no other reason than Stewart handled the issue unprofessionally by taking a pot-shot at Waltrip.
4. Are farewell tours a money grab?
We are losing several drivers to retirement, and while we want to honor them, let’s do it without having to open a wallet. Last Call, Farewell Salutes and such are not much more than a way to sell more caps, T-shirts, die casts, license plates, flags, doormats and the rest.
The blitz of new paint schemes for farewell tours is a blatant attempt to make money off die cast cars. We do not begrudge anyone making a buck, but when is enough enough?
We saw Bill Elliott step down with no fuss last season. Terry Labonte appears to be going quietly and not making a big deal out of his limited schedules. Elliott and Labonte had surely noticed as the drivers of the past grabbed the loot, starting with Richard Petty’s Fan Appreciation Tour back in 1992. Petty had a die cast car made for every race of his last season. That was way over the top.
Wouldn’t it be great if drivers found a way to honor the fans in their last year? This is what Mark Martin says he will do in 2005 for his last run.
The drivers and marketers who plan and execute final seasons might want to honor the fans who have sat in the rain, spent hours in traffic, paid more each year for tickets, and gotten creamed on the room rates at every race. The true race fan spends a larger proportion of income to support the drivers than the drivers make from the toys and die cast.
We are not down on the farewell tours; we just want to see the driver say farewell to fans, friends and the faithful without trying to make a bundle. Let’s do one of these deals without financial consideration.
To answer the question, most of the final-year deals are designed with profit in mind. One day, the fans will say enough is enough and shut the wallet. Let’s consider respect, not money.
5. Who really won Talladega?
With four laps remaining in last spring’s Talladega event, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were running door-to-door when a yellow flag was thrown for a Brian Vickers spin. In such an event, the leader is determined by the running order on the last scoring loop crossed.
When NASCAR finally made the decision to place Gordon in front of Earnhardt and not restart the event, the crowd showed its disapproval by littering the track with anything not bolted down.
This finish was between the two most popular drivers on the circuit and it could have been a defining moment in the points race. The race is behind us, but it raises questions for the future. What if a Championship is won or lost with an invisible scoring loop?
The 2002 Indy 500 had the same issue when a late caution flag waved as Paul Tracy and Helio Castroneves raced for the lead. ABC replayed different camera angles that highlighted the pass and the yellow light coming on. They ended all controversy with proof. The guys in the Fox network booth could have done the same at Talladega but NASCAR would not show that proof. The fact they did not fuels the doubt many fans and most participants have of NASCAR and its procedures.
Who was in front of whom at the right time at the right place? We don’t know and neither do Gordon and Earnhardt. They had to accept the decision without seeing proof.
6. Has the garage area become too open?
NASCAR has always enjoyed a unique relationship with its fans. In what other sport are fans allowed to literally rub shoulders with the athletes on game day? Although the drivers understand the importance of having such an atmosphere, the amount of fans in the garage area has gotten to the point where some of the more popular drivers can’t work. And after all, this is their job.
With the advent of the “Hot Pass” and the “Cold Pass,” NASCAR attempted to thin the mob of fans in the garage. However, many drivers still find it hard to get from point A to point B at any given time.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. found a not-so-subtle way to send a message to NASCAR officials at Phoenix this past season. In an effort to demonstrate that there are too many people in the garage, Earnhardt held an impromptu autograph session at the NASCAR trailer. The resulting mass of humanity prevented NASCAR officials from getting in or out of their work area. Consider his point taken.
As much as we know this will not sit well with the fans, we believe it’s time to shut down the garage area to curious onlookers. While the experience is eye-opening, it’s also dangerous. When a 3,400-pound race car with 800 horsepower leaves a garage stall, the driver can’t easy out of the clutch; he’s got to go. With throngs of bystanders milling around, it’s only a matter of time before a fan gets hurt.
7. Powerade vs. Gatorade: What was NASCAR thinking?
When in doubt, follow the money. Those may be wise words in business, but in the world of NASCAR, money trumps logic, character and common sense. In this sport, once you follow the money you have to judge the greed.
This story begins in 2003 when Powerade — a Coca-Cola product — replaced Gatorade — a Pepsi product — as the ‘Official Sports Beverage of NASCAR.’ Gatorade lost the bidding war and looked for a counter move to stay in the sport. International Speedway Corporation (ISC), owned and operated by the same people that run NASCAR, found the solution. They sold Victory Lane at the ISC tracks to Gatorade, thus the name ‘Gatorade Victory Lane.’
The new Powerade marketing program included a large Powerade bottle to be placed on top of the winning car in Victory Lane. In essence, NASCAR found a way to keep Powerade and Gatorade as sponsors, although the two were once again fighting over the same piece of real estate. NASCAR got the Powerade money; ISC got the Gatorade money. Same pants, two pockets.
The next domino fell when the car owners and drivers had to decide whose side to take. Is it right to put a Powerade bottle on top of a car that is sponsored by Pepsi or Gatorade? Jeff Gordon was the first to act, knocking the large Powerade bottle off his Pepsi-sponsored car in Victory Lane after his spring Talladega win. Other drivers followed suit in the weeks that followed.
NASCAR finally stepped in and told the drivers not to knock any sponsor-related products off their vehicles. However, Jimmie Johnson found a way around that after his June Pocono victory, as he placed a large Lowe’s prop in front of the bottle. The resulting fine and lecture made sure that no driver would attempt to circumvent NASCAR’s sponsor rules. Or so we thought.
The week after Johnson’s transgression, Gordon won his fourth Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Instead of taking the DuPont/Pepsi Chevy to Victory Lane to have a Powerade bottle placed on the roof, Gordon stopped the car at the start/finish line where his crew joined him to celebrate, leaving dignitaries, officials and a large Powerade bottle in an empty Victory Lane.
So the question remains, does ISC or NASCAR have the right to put a competing product on a racecar? We say ‘no.’ The sponsors are paying top dollar to be associated with a certain driver. When a competing product gets more exposure than the sponsor that foots the bill, something is wrong.
As for the Brickyard incident, Gordon said he was caught up in the moment, causing his impromptu start/finish line party. While that is as believable as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, we applaud Gordon for standing up to the hypocrisy of NASCAR.
8. Was Rusty right in asking Newman to lay down at Martinsville?
Picture the pressure: A restart with just a couple of laps to go before the checkers fall on a half-mile short track. Jimmie Johnson is leading; Rusty Wallace is second and you, Rusty’s teammate, are third. Wallace relays a message to you to lay off so he can win the race. Do you do it?
This was exactly the situation Ryan Newman found himself in last October at Martinsville. The facts are interesting: Newman was in the Chase for the Championship; Wallace was not. Wallace was fast enough to win; so was Newman. This is where the definition of teammate needs some clarification.
Newman rejected the request, as any true racer would. On the restart, Wallace got a run on Johnson. The Lowe’s Chevy slammed the door forcing Wallace to try the outside. When Wallace went up there, he left a hole on the inside and Newman helped himself to a dose of second place. Wallace then tried to cut down on Newman and bounced off the ALLTEL Dodge, losing seven more positions and finishing 10th.
Should Newman have settled for third? Of course not. Wallace was wrong to ask and wrong to cut down on a car that had the inside line. A driver who expects his teammate to back off is not much of a teammate himself.
This starts to define the obligations of teammates. In Formula 1 and other forms of racing, “team orders” are prevalent, but NASCAR’s good ol’ boys are a little too set in their ways for that. Helping teammates is OK until it is showtime, and never at the expense of a win.
As mentioned before, who wants a driver who will not give everything he has to win? Going back a few years, we remember another heated race at Martinsville, this time in 1990. Hendrick teammates Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader crashed each other fighting for the lead. These guys were not helping each other, they were beating and banging in their fight to win.
9. Was NASCAR right to allow spirits companies to serve as sponsors?
After years of saying no to hard liquor, NASCAR has finally allowed the spirits companies to serve as sponsors in its touring series. Agree or disagree with the decision, it can be said that this is the biggest booze story in racing since moonshiners left the sport.
As with most issues, there are two sides to the story. On one side of the street, the sport needs sponsors. Teams struggle for funding, and new sponsorship opportunities help teams to survive and grow.
Beer has been a part of this sport since sponsorships began. Almost every Victory Lane is witness to a beer shower. For years, Winston was the title sponsor, and the results of smoking are well documented. Do car sponsorships really translate into tobacco and/or alcohol abuse?
On the other hand, there are several credible groups attacking NASCAR for the decision. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Drunk Driving and the American Medical Association are lining up to criticize NASCAR. The fact that they are vocal will draw attention to the sport in a negative light.
Most decisions are based on the best and worst consequences. In the case of distilled spirits and stock car racing, we do not see a downside. If the programs are handled correctly, it can be a positive. The Smirnoff Ice program with Matt Kenseth is the perfect example. Promoting the product while promoting responsible consumption is nothing but a positive.
Personal responsibility is the issue, not promoting a legal product.
10. Should Tony Stewart have been suspended for the Brian Vickers incident?
It seems that every year we have something to write about Tony Stewart and his anger issues from the previous season. This year is no different. So here you go: After the event at Infineon Raceway, Stewart took exception with Brian Vickers. According to Vickers, Stewart approached the car, started yelling, and hit him while he was still strapped in the car.
TV cameras and photographers missed the altercation, but word quickly spread that Stewart had a harsh penalty coming. In the previous year, Jimmy Spencer slugged Kurt Busch at Michigan and received a one-race suspension. In the interest of being consistent, Stewart would have to be benched for a week. After all, this was not Stewart’s first time in hot water for a physical confrontation.
In a press conference that week, NASCAR CEO Brian France commented on the altercation, “It is a big deal. We’re going to see how big it is here shortly. But his behavior at Sears Point (Infineon) is unacceptable. We will be dealing with that shortly. Tony has to work within the same rule structure and behavioral expectations that we have for all of our drivers. And one way or the other, we will figure that out.” He went on to say, “But we are on record, and I’ll say it today, that his behavior at Sears Point is not acceptable. And so just how severe the punishment needs to be to make a point that we are not going to accept that, and punish somebody for what they did, that’s something we are going to have to work through.”
Instead of a “severe punishment” as France promised, NASCAR went with a probation, a fine ($50,000 for a guy who earned over $7 million in winnings alone last year) and points docking (a 25-point penalty). In other words, nothing but a slap on the wrist.
While Spencer’s almost identical stunt earned him a trip to the sidelines for a week, Stewart was back to the track for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona the following weekend. Of course, Spencer wasn’t sponsored by the “Official Home Improvement Center of NASCAR.” He wasn’t one of the Coca-Cola Family of Drivers. He isn’t a former Cup Champion, and he was not in the running to win the Championship at the time.
This set a dangerous precedent that says, if your sponsor(s) bring enough money into the sport, you’re free to behave as you please both on and off the track.
11. How much longer will Junior drive for DEI?
One of the worst-kept secrets in the world of racing is the discord at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. The operation’s success has soared over the past four seasons, as has the tension behind closed doors.
This fact was brought to light before last season when Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s contract was up for renewal. Junior did not sign in a timely manner. He wanted more control of his life and was not willing to blindly sign it away. Even more evidence that trouble was brewing came when Ty Norris, executive vice president at DEI and close friend of the late Dale Earnhardt, abruptly left in a dispute over philosophical differences. Insiders will tell you he left because he lost a power struggle with Teresa Earnhardt.
The supposed rift between Dale Jr. and Teresa begs the question, “When will Junior say ‘enough’ and go elsewhere to race?” There have been several small incidents that have occurred over the last two years that have caused the divide.
If Earnhardt becomes a free agent when his contract is up after the 2006 season, he can write his own ticket. What car owner would not sell the farm to get the most popular and one of the most talented drivers on the circuit?
The follow-up question will be if DEI can survive without Junior. More important, what is the value of DEI without him? Another question is could Dale Earnhardt Jr. be the next owner of DEI? These questions will all be answered in time. The only thing we know for sure is that no driver has ever been in such a powerful position. If issues are not resolved before it is time to sign up for another tour of duty, everyone will see just how powerful he truly is.
12. Can single-car teams compete?
The quick answer is ‘no,’ single-car teams can no longer compete for a Championship. Morgan-McClure, Cal Wells, Gene Haas, the Wood Brothers, Bill Davis and BAM Motorsports have been fighting a one-fisted battle against teams with as many as five cars on the track.
All teams talk about the transfer of information — testing and swapping info is vital to success. However, the primary reason the single-car stables fall short is money. The top teams with major sponsorships are becoming profit centers. Two-car teams can be fielded for one and a half times the cost of two separately owned single cars. Sharing fabrication shops, engine programs and other components of a race team cuts the cost.
Within five years, this sport could be an exclusive country club of six- or seven-car owners. This might be the grand plan for NASCAR. The sport would be more manageable and easier to govern for the sanctioning body.
By the way, the last single-car team to win a race was the Cal Wells-owned Tide Chevy. Ricky Craven drove that car to victory at Darlington in 2002 in the closest finish since electronic timing and scoring was implemented in 1993.
13. Who are the most overrated and underrated drivers on the circuit?
3. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek was an obvious choice for this list. He has four career wins, all in equipment not known for winning. With the right team, Nemechek could win a couple of races every year.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle ruffles feathers and has been accused of over-aggressive driving, but we’re high on his abilities. With two wins to its credit last year, this team has developed into a contender.
1. Matt Kenseth
The 2003 Champion takes the No. 1 underrated spot. This driver calls for chassis adjustments that make the car better. In one race, Kenseth asked The DeWalt crew to tape up the brake duct on the right front to put more heat in the tire. He can bring a car from the back to the front at most any track because he gets the most out of his car. However, his name is rarely mentioned alongside the Gordon’s, Earnhardt’s and Busch’s of the racing world.
3. Brian Vickers
The 2003 Busch Series Champion has not adapted to the Cup cars yet. After the 25 car went to Victory Lane with Joe Nemechek behind the wheel in 2003, it was downhill with Vickers in ‘04. Vickers can qualify, but thus far has been competitive in only a few events.
2. Rusty Wallace
Wallace has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more than any other driver in the last couple of years. The addition of Ryan Newman to the Penske team and a different driving technique has left Wallace behind. His ‘Last Call’ for the ‘05 season appears to be a couple of years late.
1. Michael Waltrip
Waltrip’s 2005 season will be his next last chance. Waltrip has not won a non-plate race, and he shows few signs of breaking that skid soon. Don’t get us wrong, we love Mikey, but if he had Kenseth’s dry personality, he would have been out at DEI by now.
With the World Series in the rear-view mirror and the hot stove just beginning to heat up, it's time to hand out some awards to this year's best performers on the diamond. The Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) has already named their AL and NL Rookies of the Year and as well as the American League Cy Young award. And while no Athlon editors are members of the BBWAA, here's how four of us — Charlie Miller, Braden Gall, Patrick Snow and Mark Ross — would have voted if we did have a ballot to cast.
AL & NL Managers of the Year
In most years, the candidates for Manager of the Year are those whose teams perform better than expected or performed poorly the previous season and turned things around this season. This formula, if you will, holds true for this season.
In the AL, Joe Maddon pretty much wrapped up his second Manager of the Year honor by leading his Tampa Bay Rays on a late-season push that had them overcome the Boston Red Sox and capture the AL Wild Card on the final day of the season. Other AL candidates include Jim Leyland, who led the Detroit Tigers to the AL Central title and a win over the New York Yankees in the ALDS, Ron Washington, who directed the Rangers to their second straight AL pennant and World Series appearance, and Manny Acta, who steered the Indians to 11 more wins compared to last year.
In the NL, the leading candidates are two first-year managers, Kirk Gibson of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ron Roenicke of the Milwaukee Brewers, led their teams to the top of their respective divisions, while the wily old veteran, Tony LaRussa of the St. Louis Cardinals, took his team to the top of the baseball world in what turned out to be his final season as manager.
Athlon's AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays
Athlon's NL Manager of the Year: Kirk Gibson, Arizona Diamondbacks
Here's how the Athlon editors voted
As was the case with the votes for National League Rookie of the Year and American League Cy Young, the editors were in agreement as to who was the top skipper in each league this season with both winners getting every first-place vote. Overall, there was little discrepancy among each editors' top three in either league.
Charlie Miller's ballot:
AL Manager of the Year
1. Joe Maddon
The Rays lost star Carl Crawford and their entire bullpen to free agency, yet Maddon pieced together a corps of relievers and kept his troops believing they could win all season.
2. Manny Acta
3. Jim Leyland
NL Manager of the Year
1. Kirk Gibson
Gibson’s leadership transformed a 90-loss team into a 90-win division champion.
2. Ron Roenicke
3. Tony LaRussa
Braden Gall's ballot:
AL Manager of the Year
1. Joe Maddon
In a year that was supposed to be a rebuilding season in which Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and others were sent packing in the off-season, Maddon deserves most of the credit. For a collection or rookie arms, journeyman bullpensmen, utility infielders and Evan Longoria to surge into the playoffs is nothing short of a miracle.
2. Jim Leyland
3. Ron Washington
NL Manager of the Year:
1. Kirk Gibson
Gibson took what could have been a last place team and motivated them into division champs. Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, JJ Putz, Chris Young and more had career years all at the same time. The clubhouse mentality was the primary reason the D-Backs won the division.
2. Tony LaRussa
3. Ron Roenicke
Patrick Snow's ballot:
AL Manager of the Year
1. Joe Maddon
The Rays made the Playoffs after massive offseason personnel losses — Crawford, Garza, Bartlett, Pena, Benoit, Soriano, Balfour — and a 1-8 start. Competing with payroll-heavy New York and Boston, Maddon did a masterful job in leading Tampa Bay to 91 wins and the postseason for the third time in four years.
2. Jim Leyland
3. Ron Washington
NL Manager of the Year
1. Kirk Gibson
The math explains this one easily: 65-97 became 94-68 in Gibson’s first season in charge. Obviously (GM of the Year) Kevin Towers played a big role in the worst-to-first transformation, but the Diamondbacks took on the personality of their hard-nosed manager on the way to the NL West title.
2. Ron Roenicke
3. Tony La Russa
Mark Ross' ballot:
AL Manager of the Year
1. Joe Maddon
Despite managing a team that lost many of its star players to free agency, Maddon steered the Rays back to the postseason by finishing with a flourish. The Rays overcame a nine-game deficit in the final 24 games, overtaking the Red Sox and winning the AL Wild Card on the final day of the regular season.
2. Jim Leyland
The venerable Leyland directed a 14-game turnaround from the previous season and led the Tigers to the AL Central crown and a spot in the ALCS.
3. Ron Washington
The energetic and emotional Washington directed his Rangers to their second straight World Series appearance.
NL Manager of the Year
1. Kirk Gibson
In his first year as manager, Gibson directed the Diamondbacks from worst to first in the NL West, improving the team’s win total by 29 compared to the previous season.
2. Ron Roenicke
Another first-year manager, Roenicke guided the Brewers to the NL Central title and their first league championship series appearance since 1982, which was when the Brew Crew was in the American League.
3. Tony LaRussa
In what turned out to be his final season as the Cardinals’ skipper, LaRussa pushed all of the right buttons late in the regular season and during the postseason to win his third World Series ring and cap off a Hall of Fame career.
Other Baseball awards-related content:
The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
For years, almost all of the fish swam into NASCAR’s biggest pond through one main channel. These days, that entryway seems more like a river delta.
The traditional path to Nextel Cup racing — running from a hometown short track to a regional series and then through NASCAR’s Busch Series — still works. Today, however, those experiences are not necessarily prerequisites. Talent is now flowing into stock car racing from all directions. Cup drivers of today, and most certainly those of tomorrow, are coming from open-wheel racing and off-road series; from California, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest; and from all ports and points where people learn how to drive fast.
While NASCAR’s growth has made its gravitational pull quite strong, the stars don’t always come to NASCAR on their own, however. More and more, car owners and the manufacturers who support them make it their business to identify and develop racing talent as an investment in their teams’ future. “A great deal of our success tomorrow will depend on how well we recruit today,” team owner Ray Evernham says. “If you are going to be a viable organization for the future, you have to start thinking about and recruiting talent just like any other professional sports team.”
Evernham will field a team for 23-year-old Kasey Kahne in 2004, joining virtually every other major multi-team operation in having a young driver in its system.
Hendrick Motorsports will put 20-year-old Brian Vickers, who won last year’s Busch Series championship, in Cup in 2004 and will also run Kyle Busch, the 18-year-old brother of Roush Racing driver Kurt Busch, in the Busch Series this year.
Kurt Busch is only 25 himself, and Roush Racing also has Carl Edwards and Jon Wood coming up through its ranks. At Penske Racing South, star Ryan Newman is just 26.
Richard Childress Racing will have Johnny Sauter, who is 25, in its No. 30 Chevrolet. Childress also signed Clint Bowyer, a 24-year-old short-track whiz from Kansas, to share time with Kevin Harvick in a Busch car in 2004. Joe Gibbs Racing went to the U.S. Auto Club ranks to hire J.J. Yeley for a mixed schedule in 2004 that is designed to lead to a full-time Cup ride the next year.
Chip Ganassi Racing already has two young drivers, 2003 Cup Rookie of the Year Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears, in Cup rides and has plans to run Reed Sorensen, the 2003 Rookie of the Year in the American Speed Association at age 17, in some Busch races this year. And Dale Earnhardt Inc. will run Martin Truex Jr. in a Busch car and, perhaps, selected Cup events.
“When I started 20 years ago, it was almost like there was a pecking order,” Rick Hendrick says. “Junior Johnson would take the driver he wanted from one of the mid-level teams, and that team would replace him with a guy from a lower-level team. Those teams would then look at a guy who’d been running in the Busch Series, and even if you showed promise you had to wait until you were 30 for your chance.
“Today, you have to be looking at Indy cars and sprint cars and late model tracks all over the country. And that’s good news and it’s bad news. The good news is that the pool of driver is enormous now that we’ve realized it’s out there in a lot of other places. The bad news is that you’ve got to commit to a guy so early and spend a lot of money to bring him along. If you guess right, it’s a home run. But if you don’t guess right, it takes a while to regroup.”
There is no time to waste in the racing recruiting business. Hendrick says he has approached young drivers in the past only to learn he’s the third or the fourth owner to make contact. With all of the interest buzzing around them, the most highly regarded young drivers are no longer waiting for opportunities. So car owners must quickly evaluate the potential stars and develop an instinct for making the right decisions that have a long-term impact on the success of their teams.
“You can see talent,” Hendrick says. “If they have that, then you’ve got to figure if they will work within your organization. I call it the fit factor. It’s the whole package. Can they work with a sponsor? Can they fit into the system you have in place? How mature are they? It’s all of those things. And you have to sort some of that out before you even put them in a car for their first test.”
In an ideal situation, of course, car owners with teams in the Cup, Busch and Truck series would line up drivers in a logical progression so that as an older driver retires or moves on there’s a successor ready to take over. But things are rarely ideal.
When 2003 began, most people in racing assumed that Kyle Busch was heading for a Truck Series ride at Roush Racing after reaching his 18th birthday. That would eventually lead him into a Cup ride as his brother’s teammate. Hendrick figured that was what was going to happen — until he got a phone call from Kyle Busch’s representatives.
“I thought Kyle was hooked up, but they wanted to talk,” Hendrick says. “We didn’t have a spot for him, but we made one. You just can’t have enough A-plus players.”
In February 2001, following the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in a crash at Daytona, Richard Childress had an instant need for a Cup driver who could keep a competitive team running at or near the front.
“We wouldn’t have had Kevin Harvick to put in that car if we hadn’t had a young driver sitting out there in the wings,” says Childress, who is now plucking Bowyer off of dirt and asphalt short-tracks in Kansas and bringing him to race for a team that, with Harvick and Sauter sharing the driving duties, won the owners’ championship in the Busch Series in 2003.
Everybody is looking for talent. As Bill Elliott cuts back to drive a partial Cup schedule this year, he also plans to race his own cars on short tracks around the country. While he’s doing that, Elliott will also be scouting for new talent for Evernham.
It was Mark Martin who recommended that Jack Roush hire Matt Kenseth, and Kenseth won last year’s Winston Cup title. Greg Biffle, who won Busch and Truck series titles for Roush, came at the recommendation of Benny Parsons, who saw Biffle race in a winter series in Arizona.
But Roush can’t totally depend on the observation skills of others. He has people who scout for young talent, and when he’s needed to fill openings in his Truck Series teams, he has staged full-blown auditions — nicknamed “Gong Shows” — to give some of those young drivers their shot at the big time. Kurt Busch, in fact, auditioned along with four others at a track in Toledo, Ohio, in October 1999. He got a call-back to a second round in Phoenix later that year and did well enough to get offered a Truck ride. And now, he has eight Winston Cup race victories.
Busch stepped over the Busch Series, moving straight from trucks to Cup cars, and Brendan Gaughan will attempt to make that jump this year. While there are those who’ve clearly benefited from the experience gained in the Busch Series — Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are past Busch champions and Vickers has that title under his belt as he moves up to Cup this year — that no longer appears to be a required stop along the way.
“Right now I would not suggest to any young person to go into the Busch Series and try to run every race,” car owner Joe Gibbs says. “I don’t think it’s geared for that.
“Generally, the people you’re going to find successful in Busch right now are the people that drive one of the six cars that have been there for 10 years. Or, it’s going to be a Winston Cup guy that comes down and cherry picks the races.
“In the Busch Series, you get about two hours to get ready to qualify, and in that two hours you’ve got to change over to qualifying trim, which takes about 25 or 30 minutes. So at a number of those races you get 17, 18, 19 laps if you’re lucky. Then you turn around and qualify a car; sometimes at one of the fastest places without ever having tested there because you only got seven tests.
“It’s rushed. You get a small number of laps, and almost every week there was either wrecks, seeping race track, late inspection, which also cut into the two hours, and so you do not get practice time. Then you’re shoved out there to qualify. Then you have one hour of happy hour, and the bottom line is you’re going to go up against guys in the Cup series that have had not only that practice time, but three hours in a Cup car.
“If you put a predominantly rookie team out there and try and put a rookie driver in the Busch Series and go week to week, I think you’re asking for a heartache.”
That’s why J.J. Yeley’s 2004 schedule will include about 10 to 12 Busch races, seven to eight races in Automobile Racing Club of America stock cars, as well as two or three Cup races this year. Yeley is a 27-year-old native of Phoenix who won championships in the U.S. Auto Club’s three major series — sprints, midgets and Silver Crown — during a record-breaking season in 2003. That USAC “triple crown” had been done only once before, by Tony Stewart, who won the 2002 Cup series title driving for Gibbs and who was the car owner for Yeley’s sprint car team last year.
“Right now I think stock cars are the best fit for a guy coming from USAC,” says Yeley, who in 2003 broke the USAC single-season record for victories previously held by the legendary A.J. Foyt. “A lot of people think that because you run open wheel that you should go Indy car racing, and 50 years ago that might have been the case. But technology has surpassed what we do in USAC racing, and to make that jump (to NASCAR) now is a lot easier.”
The path from USAC to NASCAR is certainly well-traveled. Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, three of the biggest stars in the Nextel Cup Series, came up through its ranks.
“There are a lot of similarities between the way the cars handle,” Yeley says, “the way they slide around a little bit on the race track, and the way the cars change throughout a tire run or fuel run. I know the ins and outs of all three race cars that I ran in USAC, and I don’t necessarily with stock cars. It’s just going to be a matter of doing a lot of testing. I’ll spend a lot of time at the shop trying to figure out exactly what kinds of changes will fix the attitude of the race car. I think that’s just going to be the biggest challenge for me right now.”
Stewart agrees with that assessment.
“He has a lot to learn,” Stewart says. “He’s driven cars primarily that were 1,600 pounds and lighter, and now he’s going to jump into a car that’s twice as heavy and has tires that are half as wide, and dealing with a radial tire that he’s never been exposed to other than the IRL.”
Yeley may lack experience, but like a lot of the younger drivers who’ve made their mark on stock-car racing in recent years, he does not lack confidence. “If I’m as good as I think I am or I hope to be in the amount of effort that I’m going to give it, I think I can accomplish the same things that those guys have done,” Yeley says of USAC products like Stewart, Gordon and Newman. “If you look at the records from what we’ve done in USAC, everything is very similar.
“But it’s going to be very tough. This is the top of auto racing. This is where the best of the best are going to be, so you just have to stand up and give it full effort and see if you can compete.”
Gibbs likes that confidence — a trait the NFL coaching legend calls “athletic arrogance.”
“We know how good he is in (USAC). We know he’s good enough to dominate over there,” Gibbs says. “That’s opposed to somebody who kind of came up through the Busch or Truck series and maybe didn’t get a bunch of wins or has a background in winning a bunch of real pressure situations. A guy like J.J. has a phenomenal background in having been in very competitive stuff, having to produce championships, and he’s won a lot. He thinks he belongs. He’s been there. He’s won.”
Hendrick is familiar with that kind of confidence in young drivers, too.
“With all of their hearts, they believe that if you give them the same equipment they would go out there and beat the pants off Jimmie Johnson,” Hendrick says, speaking of another of his drivers who at age 28 finished second in the Cup standings.
That confidence must be tempered, Hendrick says, with a willingness to learn and with an ability to handle the rest of what comes with being a driver at NASCAR’s top level.
“If you get a renegade in there it can mess up your whole operation,” Hendrick says. “I can’t speak for any other car owner, but personally I don’t think there’s anybody out there who’s that good. You work too hard to have good chemistry within your teams and you don’t want to mess that up.”
In that regard, Hendrick has a veteran like Terry Labonte and a driver like Gordon, who has won four championships and faced just about every kind of off-track challenge a celebrity driver could come up against, to show his younger drivers the tricks of the trade. But the car owner has a role in shaping a driver for success, too.
“I spend a lot of time with the guys,” Hendrick says. “Brian (Vickers) spent a week with us in Florida after winning the Busch championship, and we talked about how sponsors react to things and about how it’s important to sow the seeds and be a good citizen within NASCAR and the things they ask of you.
“These guys are so young and if somebody doesn’t help them think about how to invest their money wisely and watch out for places they shouldn’t be spending it on, they’re not going to know. It’s in my interest to see them do well, because when those things are going well they can focus on the car and the results are better for the organization.”
It’s not always sunshine and roses in the racing business, though, as Kurt Busch found out in 2003. Although he was the one who got punched by Jimmy Spencer following the previous week’s race at Michigan, by the time Busch won the Sharpie 500 at Bristol in August he was being booed lustily by almost everyone in the massive crowd at that track.
“Kurt has learned things the last three years that he didn’t know and things he didn’t know he needed to know,” Roush says. “He’s becoming wiser day by day and we’re just working our way through it. Kurt is incredibly talented. He’s incredibly skilled and he’s got great instincts on everything except maybe on some occasions the way he handles something that goes on between his ears. He’s getting wiser on that too.”
Hendrick has a line he uses with his drivers to explain how quickly a driver — one of any age — can change the way he’s perceived in the grandstands.
“You only get one audience with the Pope,” Hendrick tells them. “You don’t want to be hated by everybody. It’s one thing to have half the crowd wearing your jackets and hat and the other half booing because they don’t want you to win all of the time, but it’s another thing to have everybody hate you.”
For all of the pitfalls and pressures the trend presents, however, there’s no question that Nextel Cup racing is becoming a younger driver’s sport. The average age of a Cup race winner in 2003 was 32 years old, and the top seven drivers in the final standings were all 32 or younger. In 2001, the average race winner was 35.5 years old and as recently as 1993 he was 37.8.
Former Cup champions Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte, meanwhile, are all in their late 40s. Elliott won a race at Rockingham in November 2003 at age 48. Only four drivers in Cup history — Dale Earnhardt, Geoffrey Bodine, Morgan Shepherd and Harry Gant — won races at an older age.
The rewards for and the demands on star drivers keep increasing, too, so the career span of the sport’s elite may very well shorten. Gordon and Stewart, for instance, have both said they can’t imagine themselves driving until they’re nearly 50.
That means car owners have to be ready. They have to be looking down the track to find young drivers with the potential to follow in the footsteps of those who grab the spotlight today.
The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
It’s small enough to hide in a shirt pocket.
It can be thrown out the car window.
It’s being used — and it’s winning races.
NASCAR’s rule book states that it’s illegal.
What is it? A Traction Control device.
So why aren’t drivers being punished? Are NASCAR officials really that blind not to see it? Or are they just soft on crime?
Traction control is standard equipment on most passenger cars. Its purpose is to prevent drivers from losing control of their cars. In a nutshell, it prevents drive wheels from spinning when the other wheels are not moving. A sensor detects a difference in the speed of the front and rear wheels. If the drive wheels spin, the engine is retarded to keep you from losing control. Traction control is standard equipment in Formula 1 but taboo in NASCAR.
So what’s the big deal?
Traction control in stock car racing retards the engine up to 50 horsepower while the driver is able to mat the gas. When the engine catches up, the throttle is wide open; all the while legal drivers have been feathering the throttle making them a bit tardy in running wide open.
It boils down to talent and seat-of-the-pants driving (legal) vs. a machine (illegal). Tracks that are slick and require finesse driving are more likely to have teams running with active traction control. The track that provides the best example is Darlington. The track is slick and tire wear is excessive. The driver has to tip-toe through the turns and will spin the tires if the gas is mashed. Too much tire spin will send the car into the wall. Successful drivers at Darlington have learned how to feather the gas — by keeping the throttle open just enough to maintain speed — without breaking loose. Traction control performs that function for the drivers, and that levels the playing field and removes the skill factor.
One driver who wished to remain anonymous told us in frustration that he knew he had been outrun by the illegal system, but nothing was done to look for traction control in the offending car. He complained that it took him years to learn how to drive certain tracks and now a first-year driver can run just as well by using traction control. His years of experience have been neutralized by electronics.
The effect of traction control is both immediate — in faster lap times — and long-term over the course of a race. Teams work to get a chassis balanced and free during a race. With traction control, the spring and shock selection is different to reduce or eliminate push. Cars without traction control can’t be set up as “free” or “loose” as cars that have traction control; therefore, push is more of a factor. The more the car pushes, the sooner the right front tire wears out. Once the right front tire wears, laps times slow. When teams are fighting a push, more than likely they are not running traction control.
Traction control can be an advantage at most any track, with the exception of the plate tracks. It is more effective on tracks that require harder braking in the turns; the harder the driver has to nail the gas off the turns, the better the results.
None of the drivers who talked to us were willing to go on record, but all of them said, without hesitation, that the use of traction control is rampant in the Truck, Busch and Cup Series. We know that drivers are notorious for pointing fingers. They are quick to say they got beat by a cheater, so we have taken that attitude into account in researching this story.
So how can so many teams be getting away with such blatant cheating?
Well, it’s not like looking for weapons of mass destruction. Or is it?
The poor man’s version of traction control is rampant at most weekly racing series. It is cheaper than many horsepower enhancements and is tough for local racetracks to police. For about $5,000 you can make a mediocre driver good, and a good driver great.
Why Not Legalize Traction Control?
Because it could have a negative effect on the sport. Young and upcoming drivers across the country are learning to race with a crutch. Good drivers with potential are getting beat by a machine. Once a local track has teams with traction control, everyone else has to get on board to keep up. Drivers are winning with less skill and are not learning the driving skills they will need to move up.
The poor man’s version of the device consists of a module that easily fits in the palm of your hand. It plugs into the ignition box within reach of the driver. The driver gets in the car, puts on his helmet, straps in, and plugs his little secret into the ignition system. After the race, he unplugs, hides the evidence or just throws it out the window.
Many spotters and officials noticed an object fall from a certain car at Bristol during the cool-down lap. Later, a traction control module was found on the track. Busted! No, wait. It seems no effort was made to confront the offender. Hmm....
NASCAR to the Rescue
In a move to deter traction control in 2004, all ignition boxes must be mounted on the dashboard with the wiring harness exposed. This move should keep the module from being plugged in and out during the race, as well as prevent crews from mounting any illegal devices in the garage. The poor man’s version should be obsolete in NASCAR’s top divisions. The message is: If you can’t do it right, don’t do it. The elementary version has been exposed. The task for teams looking for an illegal advantage now becomes to develop technology that is more difficult to find. The companies that design and make traction control devices have answered the call.
The big boys’ version of traction control is built into the car from the ground up. Wiring is put in the frame rails before the car is built, and the wires are painted over for further concealment. In these days of tiny computer chips, the better-financed teams install a chip the size of a watch battery in the transmission, electronics or even the tachometer — anywhere that can detect a spike in RPM’s will suffice. The wires can go through the eye of a pop rivet. The only way to find it? Cut up the car. Then what happens if nothing is found? A needle in a haystack would be easier to find. So why would NASCAR risk embarrassing itself and infuriating teams by confiscating and destroying a car only to find nothing?
If traction control is as rampant as suspected, teams are forced to cheat to keep up. Most teams have tested traction control and many have researched ways of installing the systems. The vendors that sell traction control constantly improve their product and have a great sales pitch. They simply show their client list. Under these circumstances, teams with less experienced drivers are almost forced to use traction control to compete.
When key crew members leave and go to another team, they take the team secrets with them. These employment changes create a flow of information from team to team. When a driver leaves a team, he does not want to race against his former team’s secrets, so in many cases the driver or crew member will rat on his former team. Many, if not most, major infractions found in the past are a result of tattletales. In the case of traction control, not a single team has been publicly busted.
The cost to compete has gone up with the elimination of the poor man’s method. Teams now are forced to purchase and install a system for every car, including the backup cars, and this substantially increases the cost of operation.
Catching A Cheater
If you want to know who is running with traction control, watch races carefully. Check out the tach from the in-car camera as a suspicious car is coming off a turn. If you see the tachometer start to fluctuate down and the needle jumping, there could be something fishy going on. Legal drivers should be slowly accelerating at this point causing the tachometer to show a steady climb. Trained observers can watch a race telecast and hear the motor “catch up” or slightly hesitate in the turns.
Currently some teams are spending thousands of dollars on the newest editions of traction control. There has been a tremendous advancement in technology since the beginning of the summer. Systems operated by GPS and line-of-sight technology are now available. It’s now possible for a spotter to turn the system on and off during the race. Big-time racing is all about winning; if you want to win, you’d better run some wires.
So why doesn’t NASCAR crack down harder on the more sophisticated cheating?
The technology to detect traction control is available and has been used at several races. NASCAR officials have the ability to point the finger with technology. There is ultra-sonic technology with equipment so sensitive it can detect which cylinder is misfiring. The question is: Why don’t they?
Perhaps they can’t afford to.
It has nothing to do with the cost of intelligence officers and mounted police at all the garages. The high cost would come when many fans — and more important, the mainstream media — begin to compare NASCAR and its widespread cheating to the WWF or the XFL. Now that, NASCAR can’t afford.
In fact, many members of the media think big-league stock car racing is a couple of folding chairs away from professional wrestling already.
But the longer this goes on, the more likely the mainstream media will pick up on it and cause a real uproar in the sport.
Can’t Something be Done?
There is another catch. What happens if NASCAR lowers the boom on a team it catches with traction control? What if one of the sport’s darlings or champions is exposed as a cheater?
The current situation with the sport falls back to money. This is an appearance issue with a sport that prospers from sponsorship money. No other major league sport depends on sponsorship money like automobile racing. Would the sanctioning body bust a team when its sponsor spends huge bucks in the sport?
Many team sponsors are also involved with large ticket purchases, race sponsorships, official status programs and more. The appearance of this conflict of interest does not look good. When the sanctioning body is faced with lowering the boom or making a judgment call, they will always be questioned.
Simply put, it is easier to talk tough and do nothing than to face the music by exposing the worst-kept secret in stock car racing. The method of operation is to talk mean so the media thinks that race teams are scared into compliance.
But none of the teams are shaking in their fire suits. NASCAR’s record on catching cheaters doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of fear. In the 1983 fall Charlotte race, Richard Petty was caught with an engine with too many cubic inches — a major violation — but the NASCAR record book still shows Petty as the winner. So what is the deterrent?
We know of one team that crashed in practice and had to roll out a backup. The crew took the dash and gauges out of the crashed car and put it in the backup. This team is well-funded and can easily afford two sets of gauges. This is not proof, but other teams had a great deal of suspicion while the dashboard was being swapped in plain sight of other teams and officials. This is why so many insiders wink and grin when talking about traction control. Was NASCAR sending the message that officials were looking the other way on traction control?
When asked why officials look the other way in the face of considerable evidence, participants have various responses. Many insiders think that the technology is so advanced they cannot outsmart the team. One crew chief said that as long as the sport continues to grow, no one will want to make waves by fingering guilty parties.
There is a recurring theme: As long as profits continue to roll in, don’t upset the apple cart.
The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Remember that trip to the principal’s office? The door would close, things would get quiet and the only question was the method of punishment: paddle or suspension. You took your medicine and moved on.
That was justice, high school-style. But when you get in the back of the NASCAR trailer, justice is out the window.
Many say that the success of NASCAR has come from strong management and tough discipline; others say NASCAR has survived despite the tough management style, which is about as up-front, open and subtle as a stealth bomber.
Countless times, a driver has gotten this speech: “Hey boy, how much money are you making? Where did you get the money to buy that big house? What are you complaining about? You’d better not make waves.”
These are the words a driver hears when he does not toe the line. These words are not said in public but have been recited numerous times in private.
This is the unspoken, unreported and unflattering aspect of this sport. People who speak up are put in their place by the powers that be, who use the inspection room and pit road speed violations as venues for handing out their punishments. Insiders can cite several instances of the smoke-filled back-room method of keeping folks in line. The good ole boys of this sport know there is a price to pay for saying what they think.
Let’s look at a few specific examples.
Think back to Tony Stewart’s negative comments about Goodyear at Dover last fall. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind and you don’t bad-mouth Goodyear.
Oddly enough, the next week at Talladega, Stewart had a severe migraine headache and couldn’t practice the car on Saturday. Was he unofficially suspended for using Goodyear’s name in vain? Only Stewart can answer that question, and there’s not much chance of getting that answer on the record.
The often-criticized Stewart says what he thinks and pays the price. There’s little doubt that Stewart’s statement about Goodyear made the inspection process for the Home Depot Chevy a lot more difficult.
At Texas, Stewart’s car was confiscated and the body was cut up before being returned to the team. Some say the car was “very” illegal; others question why the car was taken. Could this have been a warning call to keep the driver in line?
NASCAR used its tactics on Kurt Busch at the end of the 2003 season. Busch, also too big for his britches, was summoned to the NASCAR trailer following his immature behavior at Martinsville, where he hit pit road with a blown motor and spun out in his own oil, following that with a “burn out” that endangered his and other pit crews.
Busch, his crew chief and car owner were called to the NASCAR trailer for the proverbial tongue-lashing. Busch was a no-show, claiming he did not know of the meeting. The meeting was rescheduled at the same time as practice for the next race in Atlanta. As an eye-opener for Busch, his NASCAR hard card was pulled for the last four Winston Cup races of the year.
Busch had to file a credential request for those races and stand in line with the media to get a credential. That brought him down a few notches, and deservedly so.
The stated reason for Harvick’s 2002 suspension was spinning out a competitor in a truck race. The real story: NASCAR wanted to put the brash and cocky driver in his place. Simply put, Harvick needed to be taught the rules of the road. You don’t show disrespect to the sanctioning body, and Harvick’s actions after he parked the truck are what earned him the sit-down. If you believe otherwise, we have some oceanfront property in Kentucky to sell you.
How does NASCAR’s iron fist rule the roost?
The procedure for checking speeds on pit road is suspect at best. To put it simply, you are told if you are speeding or not. There is no radar gun, no appeal and no justice.
What better way to keep a guy in line than to make his life tough if he does not play by the rules?
The NASCAR method of catching violators wouldn’t hold up in any other sport. CART, for example, has a digital display on pit road for all to see. To further complicate the issue, NASCAR does not allow the TV networks to show telemetry from cars when they are on pit road. Thus, the TV guys get a taste of the iron fist. How would NASCAR look if they penalized a team for speeding and the in-car telemetry showed different?
The most critical form of NASCAR justice is in the inspection process, affectionately known as the room of doom. There are so many variables in the rulebook that the teams take liberties and stretch the rules to the limit. Those same variables allow the inspectors to also take liberties. All owners and drivers know that if they get too vocal and complain too much, the inspectors can dull their competitive edge with a measurement.
There are countless stories of how justice is meted out in big-time stock car racing. To NASCAR’s credit, it has worked for the most part. The people who enforce the rules are only human and prone to honest mistakes. In NASCAR, most mistakes are not reversed.
There are many judgment calls during a race weekend that can affect a race — or even a season. Jumping a restart, passing below the yellow line at Talladega, and the famous caution for debris on the track can alter the fortunes of a Nextel Cup Team. To a man, participants admit that the judgment calls vary depending on the driver and team involved. For every call that went against a driver, there was a similar call that went for another driver.
But other major sports have been accused of unequal justice as well. For years NBA players complained that Michael Jordan was the beneficiary of more foul calls than many other players. And how many times have we heard that Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine enjoyed a wider strike zone than many other pitchers?
Taking care of a bunch of race car drivers is not an easy task. While the iron fist method seems harsh and unfair, we see the positive aspects as well. Drivers and participants have gotten in trouble off the track, and a few have seen the finer points of a jail cell. Many times these matters are handled quietly with lawyers escorting offenders out the back door of a police station. These guys aren’t getting away with felonies, but every once in a while, a little hell-raising gets out of hand.
The iron fist comes down to keep a driver in line. There are very few problems with alcohol and drug abuse among Nextel Cup drivers, due largely to the back-room tongue-lashings handed out by NASCAR. The drivers don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. Many a marriage and career have been saved by a visit to the red trailer or a phone call from the 386 area code. NASCAR is very image-conscious and works hard to keep the participants in line. The tactics used are harsh but highly effective. The drivers make a very good living that cannot be duplicated at a ‘regular job,’ so there is a lot to lose if you don’t play along.
If it looks like the iron fist treats drivers, teams, and participants like children, it is because many of them act like children. The sanctioning body, drivers, teams and participants have a good thing going, and NASCAR works hard to keep it going. Ruling with an iron fist to protect the integrity of the sport is not a bad idea. Maybe other sports should pay attention.
The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Fans who visit the museum at the complex housing his racing operations don’t need to be told how important the outdoors are to Richard Childress.
Visitors to the museum, which opened last year in Welcome, N.C., just south of Greensboro, see some of the No. 3 Chevrolets in which the late Dale Earnhardt helped Childress win six championships and enjoy some of the most significant moments in NASCAR history.
They also can walk through an impressive display of animals that any nature museum would love to have. These animals are all trophies from the various hunting trips Childress took with Earnhardt, members of his family and friends over the years.
“I look at it as a challenge,” Childress says. “I think that when I gave up driving a race car, I sort of started looking for something that had some adventure in it. When you’re standing out somewhere in Africa with lions or sleeping in a tent on the Arctic Ocean, that’s what you’re getting.”
Childress fields three teams in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. One of his two Busch Series teams also won the car owner’s championship last season. Childress is joined by Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick as the only three car owners to have won championships in the Cup, Busch and Truck series in their careers.
Out in the woods and up in the mountains, Childress is a champion, too. He’s accomplished many goals that most hunters could only dream of, and it all began in the most simple and traditional manner. “I started out with my stepfather and his father, just going out as a kid hunting rabbits and squirrels and birds,” Childress says. “I got started hunting deer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then Dale and I started really going out together a lot.”
Earnhardt and Childress cemented the relationship that became so central to their racing success on dozens of trips into the remote areas of North America and other parts of the world.
It was a memory from one of those trips, in fact, from which Childress drew strength as he tried to keep going in NASCAR after Earnhardt’s death in February 2001.
Childress and Earnhardt had been in New Mexico on a hunting and camping trip on their way to a race in Phoenix.
“I fell off a horse and it just about killed me,” Childress says of an incident he and Earnhardt always called The Big Horse Wreck. “I busted my ribs and cut my head.
“That night in camp, I told Dale, ‘You know, if I had been killed today on that mountain you’d have had to go to Phoenix and raced.’ He said, ‘I couldn’t have.’
And I said, ‘You would have had to. That’s our deal.’
“We made that deal on the mountain that day. So that’s what I had to do after he got killed, too.”
It was with Earnhardt that Childress began to raise his hunting ambitions. After they’d done just about every kind of deer hunting possible, they both decided to start hunting elk.
“I’ve always had a passion for the mountains and the country,” Childress says. “We started with elk, then we hunted for muledeer and bear in North America. We went to Alaska, and then I wanted to go to Africa. I did that every year for about seven years. Then I came back to North America and started hunting sheep.”
Childress has completed what’s called “the grand slam” by bagging all of the major types of sheep in North America. His registered number among all hunters who’ve accomplished that is 910.
On his trips to Africa, Childress also completed the “big five” — bagging a lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant. He also added a crocodile and a hippopotamus, the two additional animals needed for what’s called “the dangerous seven.”
There have been plenty of adventures along the way toward collecting those trophies.
“I have seen some tremendously angry animals,” Childress says. “It’s amazing to see an angry elephant.
“The closest call I ever had was with a cape buffalo. It was real late at night and there was a herd there. I was hunting this bigger one and a slightly smaller one — but still pretty darn big — went off into the woods. I took a shot and it went through one and dropped the other one. About the time I was getting ready to give somebody a high five for the one I had taken, the other one charged us. I was able to shoot him when he was only about 30 or 40 yards away.”
Last December, Childress left the NASCAR awards banquet in New York City and went directly to a polar bear hunt.
“You stay in a tent and sleep on (the) Arctic Ocean,” Childress says. “It’s 50 degrees below zero and all you have is a little kerosene heater. Everywhere you go, it’s serious. You have to be on your toes. It’s not only dangerous because you’re dealing with polar bears but because of the elements around it.
“We were down in Mexico hanging off the edge of a cliff, and if you fall, that’s it. We had to shimmy up the rock to get to where sheep were. You say, ‘Did I actually pay money to come do this?’ I’ve asked myself that several times.”
The hunt is only part of the appeal, Childress says. He’s been places few people have ever been, places accessible only on horseback or at the end of a long day’s hike. He’s shared those memories with friends like Earnhardt, and now he’s passing them along to his grandsons, 13-year-old Austin Dillon and his 12-year-old brother Ty. “Hunting is a part of the heritage of our country,” Childress says. “That how we all used to live, that’s how we survived. That heritage needs to be preserved.
“I was fortunate enough to be involved in helping with conservation efforts that brought elk back to the mountains of North Carolina, where they hadn’t been since the 1700s. Now, maybe my grandsons and generations after them will be able to see them in those mountains.”
Michael Vick is having a very bad season. Before any NFL teams took one snap in the 2011 season, the Eagles, lead by Vick, LeSean McCoy and a handful of defensive all-stars were every pundit's pick to go to the Super Bowl.
And then they started playing games.
The Eagles' demise is well-documented, but now Michael Vick has two broken ribs to go along with his mediocre play and even more mediocre record.
With the way Vick plays the game at his size--getting beat up on seemingly every play, throwing his body around like a rag doll, refusing to go down, when it's the smartest play for a "superstar" quarterback to make--this was only a matter of time.
Vick can't play the way he does and expect to spend 16 games on the field. Vick's status for Sunday's huge game against the Giants is currently up in the air, like so many of Vick's pass attempts that land in the hands of the opposing team.
But is Vick a superstar? After his contrite apologies for his dog-fighting scandal, it appeared Vick had matured and attempted to use his head as much as his bionic arm and legs in an attempt to become a complete quarterback who could be mentioned in the same breath as Brady, Montana or Manning.
But it never happened. Vick still doesn't seem to read defenses. He still relies on his old physical tricks to get himself out of jams. And because of that, he's throwing interceptions and taking a beating that he can't sustain.
Eagles coach Andy Reid says the same thing after every game, taking blame for what went wrong and trying to get the media to focus on him, instead of his quarterback. But after a while, these grown men are going to have to take full responsibility for being a team that hasn't lived up to expectations.
And isn't that Michael Vick's career in a nutshell? Bit hype, lots of talent on paper, high expectations. But the reality of the situation always ends up with a mediocre end. A loss to an inferior team. Poor mechanics. Mental errors.
If there's one thing Andy Reid should be blamed for, it's putting all his faith that Vick would become the quarterback everyone thought he should be. We can learn a lot from history, and history tells us that Michael Vick will never reach expecations.
Now that his broken ribs will likely cost him now only playing time, but will hamper him from all his physical gifts, you have to wonder what kind of quarterback Michael Vick could be without his physical gifts. More than likely, it's the one you saw against a sub-par Arizona Cardinals defense who completed 47 % of his passes, threw two picks and zero touchdowns.
Vick hasn't shown the ability to dominate the mental side of the position as much as he has the physical, so where does that leave the Eagles now? Out of the playoffs this year, and probably every year they have Vick under center.
Fantasy Note: If you have a chance to pick up Vince Young, only do it if you are completely desperate. Young is not the Young of old (get it?) and while the Eagles do throw the ball, you're more likely to find a more stable option elsewhere. As a friendly reminder, Young is 0-1 in pass attempts with 1 interception this year. Yes, you read that right.
There’s no greater ambassador and evangelist for college basketball than Dick Vitale, who was on the mic for ESPN’s first college hoops broadcast on Dec. 5, 1979 (DePaul 90, Wisconsin 77) and has been sharing his passion for the game with appreciative audiences ever since. Athlon Sports sat down for some preseason analysis, banter and bombast in an exclusive Q&A with Vitale
North Carolina-obvious number one team in the preseason this year. Is there a reason the Tarheels might not win it? Are there any warts on this team?
Vitale: I think the one stumbling block for North Carolina is very simple, the system. I think if it were four out of seven like in the NBA, they would no doubt stand tall as the champs. But as you know, in college basketball, one bad night and the party’s over. And there’s going to be some quality teams.
Who else do you like?
Vitale: Well, here are my “super seven.” My No. 7 team is Duke. I think Austin Rivers will be an impact diaper dandy.
No. 6, I’ll go with Vanderbilt. I think they’re gonna be phenomenal this year. Strong in the post with (Festus) Ezeli, and then scoring galore with (John) Jenkins and (Jeff) Taylor. I think that Kevin Stallings has the makings of a special team.
Five, I’ll probably go, right now, I’m going to go Syracuse. I think Syracuse, with Kris Joseph & Co., is going to be very good. Very athletic. That Jim Boeheim knows how to win.
No. 4, I’ll go with the Buckeyes. I think anytime you start in the middle with a player like Jared Sullinger, you have a chance to be special.
No. 3 is Connecticut. The arrival of Andre Drummond was the Christmas present that came really early. The 6-11 diaper dandy should be a major impact player, and I look for a big year out of the kid Jeremy Lamb.
No. 2, Kentucky. Actually, I just talked to John Callipari and he is thrilled with his talent level this year — I think even better than last year. Last year, they came very close to winning a national title. I think if they had gotten by Connecticut they probably would have stood tall in the title game. What hurt them big time was the free throw line.
Then, No. 1 is North Carolina. I think they have the best frontcourt in basketball, three NBA players in Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes.
Name a few coaches who don’t get a ton of publicity but who you really think can get the job done, who really know what they’re doing.
Vitale: There are a lot of guys you can throw into that mix. But it is so hard to rate people. It’s so difficult to compare one coach with another because everything is not equal.
They don’t have the same recruiting budgets. They don’t have the same fan support. They don’t have the same visibility, TV exposure — which all of those factors lead to the most important element involved in college basketball — the most important thing is recruiting. But to answer your question, you take a look at a guy like Fran Dunphy.
The guy does a phenomenal job down in Temple. Also, you have to talk about Bo Ryan. He doesn’t get a lot of national publicity, but all the coaches know the guy can flat out coach. But if you ask the average fan, they don’t even know who he is. Bo Ryan, what he’s done with that program is absolutely amazing.
You think about Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings. He’s done a heck of a job in a tough conference, a tough scenario dealing with Kentucky, Florida, and programs like Tennessee and all, and he has had Vanderbilt, you know, up there battling, a very dangerous basketball team. You have to mention Jamie Dixon, who has done a great job with the Pitt program. Hey another coach that doesn’t get a lot of publicity is Jimmy Larranaga, now at Miami. He does an outstanding job and doesn’t get much PR at all.
I could go on and name so many guys that really don’t get a lot of PR, a lot of notoriety, but who are legitimate big-time coaches.
What are some of your favorite arenas to call a game?
Vitale: Obviously I love Cameron Indoor Stadium. How could you not like it? If you like baseball like I do, going to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park is special, and that’s what Cameron indoor stadium is all about.
You gotta like Rock Chalk Jayhawk land up at Allen Fieldhouse. The tradition man, you feel it. You feel it as you walk into the arenas like Cameron. You feel it when you walk into Allen Fieldhouse. So special, so unique. You gotta like it when you think about going, if you want a museum, a place more like Yankee Stadium to me is like a museum, the new Yankee Stadium, and that’s what Chapel Hill is all about.
You walk in you see the Jordans and Worthys and all the great players that have played there, their jerseys, the Player of the Year awards, and it just has that special feeling. You can just feel it. Rupp Arena is Lexington. The most passionate fans — you feel the passion as they explode in the blue and white, blue nation going crazy down there in Kentucky.
You can feel that. You feel the energy and the spirit, very, very special. Those places jump at me.
How much does it pain you as a basketball guy, a guy who loves the sport, to see all this realignment stuff and realize that it’s just all about football?
Vitale: Don’t even get me started because we could go on for seven hours. I think when I’m picking up today, reading about Missouri joining this league or that league … I’m really fed up with it. I just think it takes away from the essence of what college sports are supposed to be about. And most of all, it makes no logical sense. Geographically, some of the matchups — nobody can convince me that Pitt and Syracuse belongs in the ACC. They are Big East all the way. Penn State should be in the Big East.
I mean, geographically, it makes no sense in many of these cases, and it’s all because of greed. It’s all because of dollars, and it’s all because of football, and I think it’s wacky, and I think it’s totally ridiculous.
We got leaders out there, college Presidents, who talk about integrity and talk about loyalty and talk about all the qualities they want their athletes to represent and yet they, as the leaders of the universities, violate all of it. I mean, you got a scenario where I have been told, the Pittsburgh president is sitting as the executive committee in the Big East and telling all their people, “We must trust one another. We must unite. We must do all the things that are, to stay together.” And in the meantime he’s wheeling and dealing and going to the ACC.
Gimme a break. Gimme a break. I have a problem with it. I have a major problem with it, and I think that the President of the NCAA, Mark Emert, is 100 percent right when he said the perception they are sending out to the people is really, really bad. But it’s all about, it’s all about football. It’s all about dollars, dollars, dollars. And it just breaks your heart. The loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East is monumental.
Now, are there any negatives you think to the amount of basketball that is on TV now? It’s amazing, you know four, five games a night. Is there an oversaturation or do you just think that’s just all good for the sport?
Vitale: It’s a positive in the fact that when you look at the number of people watching, in terms of if you factor in all the games, a lot of people are watching the sport.
They say ratings may be down or something, but like you just said, the quantity, the number of games that are being played and you factor in a lot of people watch it, that’s why I think the sport has become so popular.
I mean it has grown. You get down and everybody is excited about March Madness. Grandma, grandpa, the alums all over, people that never followed a game go wacky about March Madness. They find a school they love, the Davids, the Goliaths, so many of the Butlers and people just get really enthused about that.
But, I just think, you know what bothers me about all the games on TV, the way they are, is it takes away a little bit in terms of high school games and people, rather than going out, stay in front of the TV and watch game after game after game.
Especially, you know, I have a problem, I’ll be honest, with football. It used to be a situation where Friday Nights were always geared for high school football, but now with college football being shown on Friday, there’s a lot of people now who stay home and watch that college game.
Back to basketball, though. The exposure is a great thing for the fans. They are getting to know that there are more quality teams than just the so-called Goliaths out there.
Years ago, all you ever saw on TV were the Carolinas, the Kentuckys, the UCLAs. But now, you get a chance to see all the teams — it’s like a smorgasbord. So everybody gets an opportunity to get their moment on TV. And for those kids playing, that moment becomes the most special of their career.
I mean to be on national TV, whether it be ESPN, ESPNU, ESPN2, I mean, they really, really treasure that moment. And coaches utilize that. It’s become a great tool for recruiting.
Who is the best college basketball player you have seen since you’ve been at ESPN. If you are coaching the game, and you need one guy for one game, who would it be.
Vitale: In my 30 plus years at ESPN the one guy that dominated the game, his presence in the middle, just absolutely would change the complexion of how a team played, would be Patrick Ewing from Georgetown. He changed the complexion of a game just by his presence. Thou shall not enter thy lane man! You can forget about driving — you better make your perimeter shot. His presence was so special and so unique. He was just such a talent.
Who is your favorite athlete in any other sport other than basketball?
Vitale: Because he represents everything I believe in, off the field as well as on the field, everything he does is the right way, the way he deals with people — Derek Jeter of the Yankees. I just think that Jeter is what we should strive for.
We should have more Jeters in the world of sports. We have a lot of guys who forget where they come from. They forget what got them to the top of the mountain, and we see entourages, and we see all the things around them that get in their way and prevent them from reaching greatness.
Can I take two players? My other guy, and I love him because he is everything about energy, spirit, excitement, loves to play — in fact I have said time and time again that if I had to pick one player I would want to coach it would be Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
He played multiple positions. He was a winner. He’d do anything to get you to the winner’s circle, and he really did it with a smile on his face with an unbelievable enthusiasm that was contagious to everybody around.
Is there any one rule in college basketball, if you were the czar of college basketball, that you would change?
Vitale: The one I’ve been screaming about is the alternate possession on a jump ball. I think that is ludicrous and absurd. And I don’t understand the logic, how you penalize a great defensive effort by alternating possession or by the fact that “Oh, yes, the arrows pointing that way, give it to them.” And in the meantime, a guy made a great defensive play to force the jump ball. That rule bothers me tremendously. It really, really disturbs me. But saying all that, college basketball has been 32 of the greatest years of my life.
I said this when I got into the Hall of Fame, and I’ll say it again, I can’t believe the dream that I’ve had, to be able to sit at courtside for some of the greatest games. I just got my schedule yesterday, most of it, and I’m looking … I’m going to be doing a Carolina-Duke game, I’ll be doing a Kentucky-Florida game, the Carrier Classic-up there with Michigan State and Carolina, the Jimmy V classic. To sit there and look, Ohio St. and Duke, and get paid, Wow! That’s stealing money my friends. I’ve been blessed.
The work, to do something that you love, is unreal and I think this year, more so than the past few years, we are going to see many quality teams, because a lot of good kids have come back to school, didn’t go to the NBA Draft, like Terrance Jones (Kentucky), like Sullinger, like Harrison Barnes, like (Perry) Jones up in Baylor, I mean you are going to see some really really, really quality players. It’s going to be a special season.
Go to Dickvitaleonline.com to learn about how you can help Dick raise money for cancer research. He has raised one million dollars in each of the past six years for kids battling cancer.
When Knowshon Moreno went down with a knee and Willis McGahee left with a hamstring in the Broncos weird win over the Chiefs, there was only one running back left on the team (not named Tim Tebow) to carry the league's heaviest rushing load: Lance Ball.
You should get to know Lance Ball because if there's one rushing attack you probably want a piece of, it's the Denver Broncos.
By now you know that Time Tebow completed only two passes in Denver's win over the Chiefs. And it doesn't take a brain scientist (or a rocket surgeon) to figure out that means that the Broncos are run first, second and third team.
The extent of McGahee's injury seems to be mild. According to reports, he could have come back in the game, but we all know how hamstring's can come back to haunt a player, especially a running back.
You can almost predict that McGahee's hammy will act up at some point on Thursday's game and cause him to miss anywhere from a few series to a quarter or half or more.
Knowshon Moreno, on the other hand, has already been ruled out of this Thursday's game against the Jets.
Which leave Lance Ball as, at worst, the #2 rusher on a team that will run the ball 50 times. Even if McGahee is 100% healthy, Lance Ball will get plenty of chances. He proved he can carry the load against the Chiefs when he posted 96 yards on a whopping 30 carries.
Tebow will get his share of carries, but I would look to Lance Ball as an easy RB#2 going into this week, even against a supposedly stingy Jets defense.
With the game against the Chiefs, Lance Ball had more carries in one game than he did combined all season. Which means his legs are fresh enough to take an extended number of carries, especially if Fox wants to lessen Tebow's load to try and lower his chances of getting injured.
We'll keep you updated on the status of McGahee, but with the insanely elevated number of rushes the Broncos call, the second option at running back could easily get more carries than the first option of more balanced teams.
And at the end of the day, you want your fantasy players to touch the ball as many times as possible, right? You can't score if you don't get the ball, and if there's one thing that's for sure this week, Lance Ball will live up to his name and get the ball.
Ball has fantasy worth until Moreno comes back. Even then, with McGahee's hamstring injury, it's a situation you want to keep close tabs on as the fantasy playoffs get closer.
The Houston Texans can't catch a break. Or maybe they're catching too many.
After suffering through injuries to seemingly all their star players, the news got even worse this week when head coach Gary Kubiak revealed that quarterback Matt Schaub has a Lisfranc foot injury. Which, for all you non-doctors out there, a Lisfranc injury is usually a fracture to one of the tarsas or metatarsals, which are basically the bones right behind the toes.
This is not good news. If his foot is broken, then he's put for the rest of the season, as would be the Texans' chances of doing anything in the playoffs (even if they made it to the postseason).
It's hard to remember a team that has suffered serious injuries to so many of their star players. And then still kept winning.
After suffering various injuries to Arian Foster, Mario Williams and Andre Johnson, it seemed like the Texans' had weathered the injury storm and were still contenders to be one of the best teams in the AFC come January.
Andre Johnson, who had missed several weeks with a hamstring injury was scheduled to get back on the field after their bye week this Sunday. At that point, the Texans thought they would be back at 100% with their three offensive weapons (Schaub, Foster and Johnson).
Schaub is going to see a specialist this week, but it doesn't look good. Kubiak refused to give a timetable for his return, but the chances of him missing the season seem to be better than 50-50. The best case scenario would be Schaub suiting up around the time of the playoffs.
Matt Leinart, not necessarily a name that instills a lot of confidence will take the reigns at quarterback while Schaub is out. On the good side, Leinart has two solid weeks to work with the fist team and learn the offense as best he can.
And he's inheriting one of the most explosive offenses in the league with a running game that can carry almost any running back with the powerhouse tandem of Foster and Ben Tate. And it looks like they'll need to lean heavily on them while Leinart figures things out. Could we see a Broncos-esque running attack in the next few weeks?
The short answer is, don't expect much out of Leinart until you see something. He's not going to put up Schaub-like numbers, so don't take a flyer on him unless you're in a two-quarterback league and you're dealing with an injury or one of your quarterbacks is named Colt McCoy.
Arkansas senior Joe Adams had one of the greatest punt returns in the history of punt returns against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday.
Never before has a punt return gone from so stupid, because Adams started running backwards, then sideways, then backwards again, to so brilliant when he made a few cuts to make a few Volunteers miss and then finally break away to take it all the way to the house.
It's hard to say how many yards he actually ran during this punt return, but it seems like he ran anything but forward at least as many yards as he went upfield.
It's hard to say if this is more of poor defense and bad tackling than brilliant punt returning skills, but you can't take anything away from Arkansas' Adams for this punt return. He probably should've been tackled a few times, but the fact that he had such little space and juked his way to a touchdown makes this one of the greatest punt returns in history.
If you don't know about Balltribe.com, well, you should. Balltribe aggregates all the sports content you want, from breaking news to funny videos and features from around the sports world. It takes all the sports sites you read and follow, takes out all the content you don't want, leaving you with nothing but the most interesting content about sports. Balltribe is like an old 49er who's panning for gold, except, instead of sifting through dirt and muck, he's sifting through the sports world to bring you the golden nuggets of sports news and features you want.
Frank Gore, according to San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is apparently "Fine" after suffering a knee injury against the New York Giants on Sunday.
The 49ers coach was emphatic that Gore will play next week, and the knee injury that kept him out of the majority of the second half is not serious. And that he wasn't put back in the game for precautionary reasons.
OK, fine, sounds great right? Hang on a second.
Gore, who has a history of injury problems that usually cost him anywhere from a couple of games to half a season is one of those fantasy players that always has owners waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But so far, this season has been different. Gore has been one of the most productive backs in the league, carrying the 49ers to an unbelievable 8-1 record. Harbaugh is all but assured of winnin coach of the year, and Frank Gore is in the discussions for MVP.
And while that's all well and good, every Frank Gore owner has wondered when the injury bug would hit. And when he didn't come back in the Giants game, everyone assumed the worst.
Whether Gore is actually fine and will be good to go next remains to be seen, but fantasy owners should pick up his more-than-capable backup, Kendall Hunter off waivers.
Hunter has proven himself to be a #1RB in waiting and he proved it by putting up 40 yards and a touchdown, to go along with one catch, in the game against New York.
And Hunter is worth owning even if Gore is 100%, because the 49ers have already openly discussed limting Gore's role to save on wear and tear leadign up to the playoffs.
And it makes sense. If history is any lesson, Gore can't take the weekly pounding he gets. Hunter is a rookie with fresh legs. And given the fact that the 49ers have all but wrapped up the NFC West with half the season to go, why not see what Kendall can do, while resting the most important player on your offense.
Go get Hunter, and I'd dare say he's worth a start next week against Arizona, no matter what Harbaugh or Gore say this week.
DeSean Jackson will reportedly be inactive today after showing up late for a team meeting on Saturday, multiple sources are reporting.
This will be a huge, unexpected blow for fantasy teams, as well as the Eagles passing game looking to get back on track after losing a very important game to the Bears last week.
This was exepcted to be a big bounceback week for Jackson as well, who only tallied two catches for 16 yards last week against the Bears.
This week was expected to be much different, with a game at home against the Cardinals who have the 27th ranked passing defense in the league. Most fantasy experts had moved DeSean Jackson up and were expecting the entire Eagles offense to put up the points that most had been expecting them to put up all season.
Exactly what team meeting he missed or why he missed it is still unknown. We'll update this story as we learn more about the situation. It must have been an egregious error on DeSean's part for him to be inactive for the whole game, and not just a quarter or half.
In the meantime, expect more out of Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant to fill the hole left by Jackson's absence. With 3rd string wide receiver Riley Cooper seeing a few more balls thrown his way. The Eagles desperately need to win every game remaining in their season if they are to continue to have any chance at a playoff berth, so Maclin and Avant just went from being #2 and #3 WR's to being #1 and #2 wide receivers on one of the most explosive passing offenses in football.
Start both Avant and Maclin with lots of confidence.
With the World Series in the rear-view mirror and the hot stove just beginning to heat up, it's time to hand out some awards to this year's best performers on the diamond. The Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) started handing out theirs today by announcing the AL and NL Rookies of the Year. And while no Athlon editors are members of the BBWAA, here's how four of us — Charlie Miller, Braden Gall, Patrick Snow and Mark Ross — would have voted if we did have a ballot to cast.
AL Cy Young
Let's face it. This is the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander's award this season and it's not even close. There's no doubt that Verlander is going to run away with the voting for the AL Cy Young. It's more a question of who finishes behind him and in what order, and how Verlander fares in the AL MVP voting.
Even with Verlander the undisputable, clear-cut winner, there were several other pitchers who had outstanding seasons on the mound, including Boston Red Sox starter Josh Beckett, Verlander's Detroit Tigers teammate closer Jose Valverde, the Los Angeles Angels' starting duo of Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, New York Yankees teammates Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia, Tampa Bay Rays starter James Shields, Texas Rangers ace C.J. Wilson, and Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero.
Josh Beckett, SP, Boston Red Sox: 13-7, 2.89 ERA, 193 IP, 52 BB, 175 K, 1.03 WHIP, 30 GS
Dan Haren, SP, Los Angeles Angels: 16-10, 3.17 ERA, 238 1/3 IP, 33 BB, 192 K, 1.02 WHIP, 34 GS
Mariano Rivera, RP, New York Yankees: 1-2, 1.91 ERA, 44 SV, 61 1/3 IP, 8 BB, 60 K, 0.90 WHIP, 64 GP
Ricky Romero, SP, Toronto Blue Jays: 15-11, 2.92 ERA, 225 IP, 80 BB, 178 K, 1.14 WHIP, 32 GS
CC Sabathia, SP, New York Yankees: 19-8, 3.00 ERA, 237 1/3 IP, 61 BB, 230 K, 1.23 WHIP, 33 GS
James Shields, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: 16-12, 2.82 ERA, 249 1/3 IP, 65 BB, 225 K, 1.04 WHIP, 33 GS
Jose Valverde, RP, Detroit Tigers: 2-4, 2.24 ERA, 49 SV, 72 1/3 IP, 34 BB, 69 K, 1.19 WHIP, 75 GP
Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 251 IP, 57 BB, 250 K, 0.92 WHIP, 34 GS
Jered Weaver, SP, Los Angeles Angels: 18-8, 2.41 ERA, 235 2/3 IP, 56 BB, 198 K, 1.01 WHIP, 33 GS
C.J. Wilson, SP, Texas Rangers: 16-7, 2.94 ERA, 223 1/3 IP, 74 BB, 206 K, 1.19 WHIP, 34 GS
Athlon's Winner: Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers
Here's how the Athlon editors voted
Charlie Miller's ballot:
1. Justin Verlander
Verlander turned what was a hotly contested race two months ago into a runaway. It’s not so much his 24 wins that are impressive, but he logged more than 250 innings, had 250 strikeouts and allowed just 231 baserunners via hit or walk.
2. Jose Valverde
The Tigers’ closer is among the elite firemen in baseball now. He had a perfect 49-for-49 season in save chances.
3. Jered Weaver
It was tough pitching for one of the weakest offenses in the AL. The Angels plated four runs or less in 11 of his 33 starts. Six of Weaver’s seven no-decisions were one-run games; three wins, three losses.
4. James Shields
Shields was a badly needed workhorse for the Rays, logging 249.1 innings. His 16-12 record isn’t all that impressive, but the Rays won all five of his no-decisions, making them 21-12 in his starts. And his team provided just two runs or less 12 times.
5. CC Sabathia
The Yankees were 22-11 in his starts, but let’s face it, in 10 of those starts, the Yankees plated eight runs or more. He failed to complete the sixth inning just twice.
6. C.J. Wilson
7. Dan Haren
8. Josh Beckett
9. Mariano Rivera
10. Ricky Romero
Braden Gall's ballot:
Patrick Snow's ballot:
1. Justin Verlander
This one is about as easy as it gets. The Tigers’ ace led the American League in ERA (2.40), wins (24), innings pitched (251) and strikeouts (250). Verlander also had the only WHIP under one among AL starters at 0.92. He was absolutely dominant this season and was a catalyst in propelling Detroit to the AL Central crown and an ALDS victory over the Yankees. Verlander is a lock for the Cy and will also get heavy AL MVP consideration.
2. Jered Weaver
3. Jose Valverde
4. James Shields
5. Mariano Rivera
6. Dan Haren
7. CC Sabathia
8. C.J. Wilson
9. Josh Beckett
10. Ricky Romero
Mark Ross' ballot:
1. Justin Verlander
Besides winning the pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) in the American League, Verlander led the majors in wins (24), innings pitched (251), strikeouts (250), WHIP (0.92) and opponents’ batting average (.192). Oh yeah, he also threw his second career no-hitter in May. Talk about dominant.
2. James Shields
Shields led the majors with 11 complete games and was second with four shutouts, which was tops in the AL. He won 16 games and came up big time and time again down the stretch as the Rays chased down the Red Sox and won the Wild Card.
3. Jered Weaver
Finished just behind Verlander for the AL ERA title at 2.41, was third in wins (18) and second in WHIP (1.01). He started the season by winning his first six starts with a 0.99 ERA and went 8-1 in June and July with a 1.65 ERA.
4. Jose Valverde
A perfect 49-for-49 in save chances as he carried the load in the Tigers’ bullpen on their way to winning the AL Central.
5. CC Sabathia
Second in the AL in wins (19) and strikeouts (230), Sabathia also posted the lowest ERA (3.00) of his three-year Yankee tenure.
6. Dan Haren
7. C.J. Wilson
8. Josh Beckett
9. Ricky Romero
10. Mariano Rivera
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