Articles By Matt Taliaferro

All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/disaster-averted
Body:

By Matt Taliaferro

It was the race that kept Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick awake at night. The three drivers left to settle the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup knew the Amp Energy Juice 500 from Talladega Superspeedway would be the ultimate wild card race in a tight championship battle.

After 188 white-knuckle laps with giant packs of cars in tight drafting quarters, the trio of contenders escaped unscathed, and more incredulously, all with top 10s. In fact, one — Harvick — came within a foot of winning.

Instead, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, who won the lottery after finding the right draft to get him in the right position at the right time and have just enough of an advantage over Harvick when a caution was displayed after the leaders had taken the white flag.

AJ Allmendinger’s frightening spin, flip and head-on contact with the inside wall triggered a yellow flag as four leaders entered Turn 1 in two-by-two formation. Bowyer edged out Harvick and David Reutimann with drafting assistance from Juan Pablo Monotya to score his second win of the season, both having come in the Chase.

"Just very, very happy for a lot of reasons," Bowyer said. "Everybody at RCR has worked very hard to get us back. To have Kevin racing for a championship is where obviously Jeff [Burton] and I wanted to be. But to have him still in a shot at winning a championship, that's very important. To be able to win two races in a Chase for our race team is very important."

Despite Bowyer’s win, he remains 12th in the standings after being penalized 150 points after an infraction found after the New Hampshire event, which Bowyer won. But the focus of the point standings now centers on the top three, where Johnson, who finished seventh, holds a 14-point lead over Hamlin, who ran ninth on Sunday. Harvick remains third, just 38 points out of the lead.

Harvick suffered nose damage to his No. 29 Chevy with 46 laps remaining, when Bowyer spun the car of Marcos Ambrose while racing in the pack. The contact dented Harvick’s nose, but the crew repaired the car with duct tape and Bondo and, miraculously, the aero-sensitive car seemed unaffected.

"When I saw him start to spin, I didn't want to spin out," Harvick explained of the accident with Ambrose. "I didn't want to come back up the racetrack. I didn't want to spin backwards and have a chance of getting in the wall.

"He just kind of rolled across the nose. I was able to just kind of not keep hitting him. I was able to just kind of go back on the gas and push him off of me. That was the best way I knew at that point to minimize the damage on the nose.

"[The crew] did a great job fixing it. Got the fenders pulled out. As long as we were in the middle of the pack, we were fine."

Johnson laid back at the tail end of the field for a large portion of the race, waiting patiently with teammate Jeff Gordon to make one last mad dash through the field near the end. When the duo decided to go with 16 laps remaining, neither expected to slice through the field as quick as they did. Within two laps they drove from 26th and 27th to first and second, only to get shuffled back when Gordon dropped back due to what he believed to be an engine issue. Without his drafting partner, Johnson plummeted through the field, but Gordon’s engine came back to life and the two recovered to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.

"We had a strategy [and] stuck to our game plan," Johnson said of riding in the back and making a late charge. "In the end, I had a shot at winning the race, which is what we were after. Unfortunately, the 24 [Gordon] felt like he had an engine problem developing once we got to the front [and] kind of pulled out of the way so he wouldn't blow an engine in front of me or the field. In the end, he was pumping some oil out and didn't have an engine problem.

"Where things kind of went wrong for us was on that restart. Things must have shuffled around behind the 77 [Sam Hornish Jr.]. The 77 and I were the only ones in the middle lane, which was the outside lane at the restart. The inside lane was well-organized. The outside lane, I think Kevin and some of those guys were hooked up and motoring on by.  At that point we were just trying to get back up in there for a decent finish. On my way sliding backwards, I found the 24 again. He pushed me [and] we made our way up through the center."

Hamlin struggled as well, only to rebound late. Employing the same sandbagging strategy as Johnson, Hamlin rode in the back but at one point lost the draft and went one lap down. He wasn’t able to get back on the lead lap until the Harvick/Ambrose incident, but once there, hooked up with his teammate, Kyle Busch, and drafted to the front. However, the Joe Gibbs Racing duo sat atop the pylon too early — with 30 laps to go — opening the door for others to pair up and draft by.

"We were in great position to win with two to go," Hamlin said. "I had a push from the 5 [Mark Martin], but as soon as we passed the 48 [Johnson], he stopped pushing. It killed us. That's what I would expect of a teammate, but we weren't around teammates at the end."

The three points leaders are now prepared to settle the championship over the last three races — at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. And with a 38-point spread, it’s still anyone’s title.

"We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point," Johnson said of the final trio of stops. "We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. You're going to have to run in the top 5 to stay in the game then, obviously, take advantage of things and win if you can.

"Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on you’re A-game from here on out."

Teaser:
Clint Bowyer played chess better than the rest on Sunday, and the three championship contenders — Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — managed to avoid the pitfalls of Talladega in the Amp Energy Juice 500.
Post date: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 12:15
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/racing-returns-fans-vanish
Body:

by Mike Neff

Martinsville Speedway provided another fantastic race last weekend with 24 lead changes among 12 drivers swapping paint and knocking fenders. Six points now separate first and second in the Chase standings by virtue of Denny Hamlin’s win, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a leader for 90 laps. And, maybe most telling, was that there was no late-race debris caution thrown to engineer an exciting finish.

The race was attended by 56,000 fans — 92 percent capacity for the speedway — while 3.9 million fans watched the race on television. While at first blush those numbers seem decent, when compared to the rest of the Chase races, the Martinsville event was behind California, Dover and Charlotte in terms of attendance and viewership. Fans continue to vocally complain about what is wrong with NASCAR and how it needs to get back to its short track racing roots, but fail to back that up with their actions.

Martinsville Speedway has been on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule since the series’ first season in 1949 and is one of only two race tracks still in existence from that inaugural season. Hard core fans scream about tradition, history and how the sanctioning body turns its back on the foundation of the sport, but when the time comes to support these cornerstone facilities, the fans continue to drop the ball.

There’s no doubt that the Martinsville, Va., area is suffering mightily during this economic downturn, with unemployment near 20 percent. However, local fans are only part of the attendance for any major touring series event, and fans from outside of the region need to speak with their wallets by showing up at the half-mile paper clip. Of course, there are the usually excuses from fans — the traffic is a problem, parking is difficult, ticket prices are too high, hotel rates are ridiculous — but by comparison, Martinsville is on par with all of the other tracks on the schedule.

The speedway has done its best to help alleviate the traffic problems associated with entering and exiting the venue. Track management has worked with the state of Virginia to secure a grant from the Tobacco Commission for an upgrade to the immediate area’s infrastructure, ultimately building a new exit ramp from US 58 next to the speedway to help ease traffic flow. As part of the agreement securing the grant, International Speedway Corp. has promised to host two Sprint Cup races at the facility for the next five years. The Virginia Tourism Commission has also committed to assisting in promoting the Martinsville races through its nationwide marketing campaigns.

As far as ticket prices, Martinsville is always trying to make the racing experience affordable for the fans. This year it offered a family four pack for the Tums Fast Relief 500 that allowed a family to purchase four tickets (two adult and two child), four hot dogs, four soft drinks and two Martinsville hats for $99. To score four tickets to a Cup race for $25 is a pretty decent deal to begin with, but add in food, drinks and souvenirs for four and it is pretty hard to claim the speedway isn’t doing its best to make attending a Cup race affordable. In addition, Martinsville offered other tickets specials, from $25 backstretch and $40 Bill France Tower seats to $55 Clay Earl Tower and $65 Sprint Tower seats. The prices are without a doubt as reasonable as any found on the Cup schedule, and offer a wide variety of options.

Weather is also a factor that tends to make fans stay away from races, and Martinsville has been working hard with NASCAR to try and move its spring date closer to the late-April timeframe it occupied for years. Next year’s schedule sees the spring race moved to the first weekend in April, which will certainly allow for more comfortable conditions. The fall race lands on Halloween weekend in 2011, which should be an ideal time to enjoy the hills of southern Virginia.

The bottom line is that the fans can complain all they want that NASCAR is getting away from its roots by moving more and more races to 1.5- and 2-mile cookie-cutter tracks, but when the rubber hits the road, the fans are dropping the ball in proving to the sanctioning body that short track racing is what they want to see.

The track offers some of the best racing, year in and year out, that anyone will see during the season. Cars beat and bang, strategy comes into play and occasionally there are even dustups on and off the track, as we saw last weekend with Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. However, the fans left 4,000 empty seats in the stands on Sunday and didn’t tune in for the television broadcast, so there’s no reason for the suits in Daytona to be impressed with a crowd of 56,000 fans for a great race when Fontana gets ripped for having 70,000 in the stands at a boring one.

The populace is going to the polls next week to elect government officials for the next two years and a groundswell seems determined to send a message to Washington that the changes they’ve seen the last couple of years are unacceptable. The fans of NASCAR need to do the same thing with the races at Martinsville and the other short tracks if they truly want to see change. Because if the races at NASCAR’s oldest track are not sold out next year and the year after, then when the five-year commitment from ISC runs its course, the only people to blame for the demise of the track will be the absentee fans.

Teaser:
The racing at Martinsville was as good as NASCAR fans have seen all season, yet attendance and viewership was still down. Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff warns that without fan support, the grand old short track stands no chance in the boardroom, where its future will be determined.
Post date: Thursday, October 28, 2010 - 15:45
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-3
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Upcoming Talladega race is the true wild card of the Chase ... and with apologies to Denny Hamlin, the only thing inside Johnson’s head right now.

2. Denny Hamlin  Quite a statement win by Hamlin at Martinsville with Talladega next, followed by three Hamlin-friendly tracks to end the season. This oughta be good!

3. Kevin Harvick  Harvick may be the best of the top three at Talladega, a track where he won in April.

4. Kyle Busch  His roller coaster of a Chase continues — on his way up at the moment — following a runner-up at Charlotte and a fourth at Martinsville.

5. Carl Edwards  Throw out that pesky distributor problem in Fontana and Edwards has 14 straight finishes of 12th or better.

6. Jeff Gordon  Kurt Busch should be happy that short track season is over, because Gordon would have him dead to rights if Bristol were up next.

7. Jamie McMurray  Had McMurray made the Chase he would only be 112 points out of the lead and heading to one of his best tracks at Talladega.

Teaser:
Denny Hamlin walked the walk at Martinsville, but Jimmie Johnson once again notched a top-5 finish and continues to hold the top spot in Athlon Sports’ weekly Horsepower Rankings.
Post date: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - 17:07
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/talladega-superspeedway
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Talladega, Al.
Distance: 2.66-mile tri-oval (500.1 laps/188 miles)
Banking/Turns: 33 degrees; Banking/Tri-Oval: 18 degrees; Banking/Backstretch: 2 degrees
Race Dates: April 25 (Kevin Harvick) and October 31

From the Spotter’s Stand
It’s not just Will Ferrell who runs around Talladega’s 2.66-mile tri-oval worrying about "The Big One." Many fantasy racing owners shrugged at Brad Keselowski’s win in April 2009, after Carl Edwards went spark-flying into the air and smacked the safety fence in front of the fans in the closing seconds of an exciting Talladega night ... well, afternoon.

Keselowski edged out Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who is third all-time in Talladega history with five wins in 21 races, behind Jeff Gordon (six in 35 starts) and his bumper-sticker-celebrated father (10 in 44 runs) — despite leading only one lap, albeit the most important one of his career.

In November 2009, Jamie McMurray coasted to a victory following — you guessed it — "The Big One," which hit in the form of a 13-car crash out of Turn 4, forcing the fifth caution flag of the race with one lap to go. Ryan Newman landed on the roof of his car to send the race three laps past the scheduled 188 circuits. In a confusing finish, Kasey Kahne attempted a pass but was blocked by McMurray, who earned his first victory at Talladega.

The April 2010 version also came with the customary "Big One" with two laps remaining when Joey Logano turned the snakebit Newman, setting off a nine-car melee. When Newman voiced his displeasure with the parameters of plate racing in a post-accident interview, it drew the ire of NASCAR, which ìsecretlyî fined him — a fact that came out months later.

As for the ending, it was a classic: Kevin Harvick glued the nose of his Chevy to McMurray’s bumper (see a pattern here?) and pushed him away from the field. As the two screamed through the tri-oval with checkers in the air, Harvick made his move, loosening McMurray slightly and slipping low for a .011-second win.

Teaser:
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the one track every Chase driver fears this weekend: Big, bad Talladega Superspeedway. Athlon Sports' Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush bring you up to drafting speed in our weekly Tracks on Tap feature.
Post date: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - 10:02
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/tighten
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by Matt Taliaferro

Denny Hamlin claimed to have been biding his time, keeping points leader Jimmie Johnson within drafting distance and waiting to get to the second half of the Chase with its Hamlin-friendly venues. Martinsville was to be Stop No. 1 on the Hamlin Express tour, and thus far, the plan is going extremely well.

Hamlin sat on the pole, led 40 laps and had the car dialed in when it mattered en route to winning the Tums Fast Relief 500, his third consecutive victory at Martinsville Speedway. The triumph narrowed the Chase landscape, as Hamlin finds himself six points behind Johnson in the title hunt. Johnson finished fifth at Martinsville, while Kevin Harvick kept pace with both drivers by virtue of a third-place run to stay within 62 points of Johnson.

"I think it was a ‘must finish in front of’ race," Hamlin said. "I couldn’t lose points to him [Johnson], not at this racetrack. We’ve run too good here the last few years to lose points to him at this racetrack. Literally, I just kept him and the 29 [Harvick] in my sights all day long."

The win was Hamlin’s series-best seventh of the season and his first of the Chase. The Virginia native had been strong in the five previous playoff events — not having finished worse than 12th — but Johnson had managed to finish in front of Hamlin each week save one and was on a run of four consecutive top-three showings. Simply put, Johnson was winning the battle of "anything you can do, I can do better."

That changed at Martinsville, where Hamlin arrived with a swagger not seen since a regular-season finale win in Richmond, another home-state track for the fifth-year Joe Gibbs Racing pilot. The race was not without peril, though. Hamlin slid out of the top 10 at the drop of the green, battling a car that he admitted to feeling some reservations about on race morning.

Teaser:
Denny Hamlin won the Tums Fast Relief 500 from Martinsville Speedway, and in the process closed to within six points of Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Post date: Monday, October 25, 2010 - 12:19
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/king-without-crown
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by Vito Pugliese

It’s late October, and the cold and flu season is starting to fire up. A friend of mine on a business trip to Las Vegas had to come home early last week after she came down with strep throat. Last Saturday night in Charlotte, Kasey Kahne apparently was feeling ill, getting sick in his racecar before crashing it.

After an accident on lap 125 where Kahne collected Sam Hornish Jr., Kahne’s mangled machine was brought to the garage area. Once his car was made drivable again, Kahne refused to get back in, citing sickness, including having vomited inside the car. During the event Kahne was critical of the car’s poor handling, low power and, for the second time in three weeks, lack of brakes — not exactly comforting while entering Turn 1 at 195 mph.

When Kahne made clear his decision to not play the role of crash test dummy, he was approached by an unnamed crewman on the team, imploring him to ìstart pulling his weightî and get back out on the track. Kahne, who had likely tired of not being able to slow down reliably while at a high rate of speed, refused, and J.J. Yeley was summoned to complete the race, ending the night 120 laps down in the 38th position.

On Wednesday, Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Kahne had been released of his driving duties of the No. 9 Budweiser Ford. Several mechanics who had planned to follow Kahne to Red Bull Racing in 2011 were also summarily dismissed. Kahne had driven the No. 9 car since he came to the Cup Series in 2004, driving for then owner Ray Evernham.

On Thursday, it became apparent that there was bigger trouble within the walls of RPM, extending far beyond just firing the star driver and loss of mega-million dollar sponsor Budweiser. Such as been the plight of RPM the last couple of years. From not being able to pay drivers A.J. Allmendinger or Reed Sorensen last year, to questions surrounding the financial viability of the organization before the 2009 season even began, the Jenga stack upon which this team was built has continued to have key cogs slide out one by one every few months.

The events of the past two weeks are far removed from a year ago, when Kahne’s team won races in Sonoma and Atlanta and qualified for the Chase for the Championship — albeit in what were truly Gillett-Evernham Dodges, with the King’s familiar silhouette adorning the cars and war wagon.

So how have all the King’s horses and all the King’s men gotten to this point?

Primarily due to the actions of the Humpty to their Dumpty, owner George Gillett and his son, Foster. As a major player in returning Chrysler back into NASCAR competition, Evernham sold his Evernham Motorsports operation to businessman George Gillett halfway through the 2007 season. Evernham had distanced himself a bit from the team while tending to issues in his personal life. Some may recall former driver Jeremy Mayfield calling attention to these publicly, which eventually cost him his ride, and likely led him down the path that has seen him embroiled in a legal battle with NASCAR for over a year now.

Teaser:
Startling developments at Richard Petty Motorsports have NASCAR Nation wondering if all the king's men can put a once-proud organization back together again.
Post date: Friday, October 22, 2010 - 16:49
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-2
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Not even a self-induced spin at Charlotte could keep Johnson from notching his fourth consecutive top-three finish. Seriously, he’s not a robot, is he?

2. Denny Hamlin  Hamlin is doing his best to keep pace, but while Johnson clicks off top-three runs, Hamlin is more in the fourth- to 12th-place range.

3. Kevin Harvick  Harvick is averaging a 7.6-place finish in the Chase and still finds himself in a 77-point hole.

4. Kyle Busch  Red hot for five races, out to lunch for two and then back in the game with a strong runner-up showing in Charlotte. It’s really hard to figure this kid out.

5. Tony Stewart  Stewart gained 60 points on Johnson in Kansas and California only to lose 70 in a forgettable performance in Charlotte. Time to start testing for next year, Tony.

6. Jeff Gordon  Gordon’s Chase hopes came tumbling down in Charlotte, too, courtesy of a faulty alternator and a pit-road speeding violation.

7. Greg Biffle  It’s feast or famine for Biffle, who carries the hopes and dreams of teenagers with braces with him each week.

Teaser:
Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch duked it out for the win in Charlotte, while Jimmie Johnson snuck in a stealthy third-place run, and once again tops Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings
Post date: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 09:34
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/martinsville-speedway
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Martinsville, Va.
Distance: .526-mile oval (500 laps/263 miles)
Banking/Turns: 12 degrees
Race Dates: March 28 (Denny Hamlin) and October 24

From the Spotter’s Stand
The shortest track on the Cup schedule has an even shorter list of recent winners. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have combined to win the last eight races at the half-mile paperclip, with Johnson nabbing five wins to Hamlin’s three.

Hamlin led 296 laps in the spring of 2009 before being nudged by Johnson on Lap 485 of 500. The 48 car then pulled away to win by .774 seconds on March 29 — which also happened to be the 25th anniversary of Rick Hendrick’s first Cup win as an owner.

Revenge was served in late October, however, when Hamlin (206) and Johnson (164) combined to lead 370 of 501 laps; but it was Hamlin doing the passing and taking the checkers for his second win and eighth top-10 in nine starts.

Earlier this season it was Hamlin again who took control and led a race-high 172 laps en route to his second straight Martinsville win by just .67 seconds over Joey Logano.

Jeff Gordon has hauled a few Grandfather clocks out of Virginia in his time. Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins in Martinsville. He trails only Richard Petty (15), and Darrell Waltrip (11) and is tied with Rusty Wallace for the most all-time wins at the Cup circuit’s oldest track. His last wins came in 2005, when he swept both events, and the four-time champion hasn’t finished worse than fifth in the nine races since.

Crew Chief’s Take
"It’s a long day in the sun there, and you don’t win it by roaring out of the box. You can’t use up your brakes; you can’t use up any of your equipment. It’s hard to pass at Martinsville because it’s so tight. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here."

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 - 15:28
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/limit
Body:

by Tom Bowles

“It’s tough, when you sit down and think about it; the saddest thing is that you never got a chance to say goodbye to him. But oh, how he lived.”  — Kerry Cramer

One of Tim Richmond’s lifetime friends sums it up perfectly, the triumph and tragedy captured in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the NASCAR legend that could have been. It’s the story of a talented driver brought down by both the phobia and the poison of AIDS, a story in cultural contradiction between the loose-living, feel-good attitude of a man whose brash ways inevitably clashed with a conservative Southern culture. It was a tale of awkward acceptance, then ignorance and a long list of misunderstandings until it was far too late.

The story should bring you to tears, and by the end you’re certainly crying your eyes out for a life that didn’t deserve this ugly ending. But in the 50 minutes until we get there, this documentary produced by NASCAR Media Group achieves a type of even-keeled balance you rarely see, making it a must for your TV schedule once it premieres Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. on ESPN. Put together through a detailed, chronological look at Richmond’s life and career, we see the beauty of a free-wheelin’, naturally talented party animal rise and fall in a way no one in this sport had done before or since.

Through it all, in this age of earthquake-shattering declines in ratings and perception you can’t help but wonder how much NASCAR would beg to have his personality now. An excitable, always optimistic soul, he had the fashion sense employed by Manhattanites Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, a “cosmopolitan man,” as the documentary says, living in a good ol’ boys world. But while the driver got lost, even beaten down initially inside a sea of cowboy hats and one-track minds, the bright, engaging side of his personality never stopped to become a sponsor shrill. From start to finish, it was Richmond doing things his own way, the type of charismatic character brought forth in a film that leaves hardcore fans longing for a simpler time.

“Are you going to win, or are you going to survive?” a reporter asks Richmond in a clip from the early ’80s. “Win,” he says. “I don’t know how to spell survive. Win is a lot easier to spell. M-O-N-E-Y is what they call it.”

How many millions will you bet that no one inside this year’s Chase for the Championship field ever says that? In some ways, this man stood alone while in others, he served as a preview of the sweeping NASCAR changes to come during the Jeff Gordon era of the 1990s and beyond.

“He didn’t know much more mechanically about the car than your average Labrador retriever,” claims Humpy Wheeler, one of many similarities he has with Gordon and others who followed him at Hendrick Motorsports. “He just knew how to drive one naturally as good as I ever saw.”

During a time where mechanics also doubled as men behind the wheel, it was one of one thousand reasons this playboy who originally started his career in IndyCar struggled to gain acceptance. For those that think the lawsuits of the last two years are truly heinous — Mauricia Grant and Jeremy Mayfield — think back to a time in the mid-1980s where just a white boy with a northern accent would walk around the garage and get looked at like an unwanted outsider.

“The conservative, beer-drinking guys from the south, it was a tough road,” says Jerry Punch in the film. “They didn’t like him because he was different.”

“NASCAR had a hard time accepting him because he wasn’t one of those good ol’ boys,” adds sister Sandi Walsh. “And he struggled those first years.”

In a way, then, his 1986 partnership with then-up and coming businessman Hendrick was like a match made in heaven. Two industry outsiders, two new philosophies filtering into the sport, combining together to harness a talent that throughout the first seven years’ of Richmond’s career had been filled with potential — not overall performance. It was simply breathtaking to review all over again. Bring in a military-style, award-winning crew chief named Harry Hyde, and you have all the ingredients for a Hollywood story. Indeed, one of the few omissions from this outstanding production is the fact this trio provided the basis for the 1990 NASCAR mainstream movie Days of Thunder.

“One of the greatest talents that ever drove one of these cars,” said Hendrick, whose penchant for matching the perfect pairing led to a breakout season for Richmond: seven victories, eight poles, and a third-place finish in the final standings. By this point, it’s the halfway mark of the film and you’re roped into the heart of this storybook success, waiting patiently for the fairy tale ending that never comes.

Then, out of nowhere the nightmare begins, a film’s shocking transition into the dark prejudice of AIDS and resulting contraction that ultimately brought Richmond down. The national ignorance and fear within the NASCAR community is captured brilliantly here by director Rory Karpf, some shocking admissions of mistakes within a sanctioning body that usually says the words “I’m sorry” next to never.

“‘Ignorant’ is the best word you can use to describe what he was going through,” says Kyle Petty, surrounding Richmond’s downfall and resulting isolation. During the 15-month period between December 1986 and his final departure from the sport following the 1988 Busch Clash, a brief comeback gets nixed along with a second, the latter including a “failed” drug test that even Bill France Jr. admits was a mistake. One by one, the myths of a mystery disease get exposed, the tricky national controversy a then-growing sport just wouldn’t make the gamble to take on.

And that’s where this film rises bluntly to the occasion, presenting both sides in a way that you actually find yourself sympathetic to NASCAR’s tough decisions despite its cold-blooded intentions. Surely, there were missteps in a problem that, if handled differently, could have been a landmark in the fight to change the perception of AIDS. But in any relationship breakdown, it takes two to tango and Tim’s portrayal as someone who never came to grips with this deadly disease makes you understand how quickly this disaster began to snowball, allowing the phobias to strengthen by his own ignorance to accept the tragic hand that was dealt.

Still, when all is said and done it’s Richmond’s fellow competitors in the crosshairs, the deep seeds of refusal to both acknowledge and accept something different at the heart of the film’s central message.

“He was a heck of a race car driver, but I don’t know how strung out he was on something to make him that way,” Richard Petty says, speaking words that, considering the 21-year gap between Richmond’s death and the breadth of AIDS awareness now, are simply stunning. “If I was taking something, I might be a little different, too.”

“Everybody I’ve ever known that tries to play hardball with NASCAR loses,” adds Punch, a quote that sticks from a battle Richmond fought and ultimately lost to stay inside the sport as he grew sicker. “Because they own the ball and they own the playing court.”

As you might expect, that’s where Karpf heads towards the inevitable tragic conclusion steeped with the pain of personal connections that drive its point home. But keep in mind this film isn’t without some brighter moments; in fact, both the beginning and end is where you keep your eyes open for my favorite person, the hometown friend of Richmond’s who has a beard to make hippie Santa Claus proud. I’ve never been so excited to hear the words “honey” and “nice” used in the same sentence — absolutely hysterical. Stroker Ace aficionado Hal Needham is among a handful of other surprise guest who make an appearance.

Looking back at the Hall of Fame selections this week, it’s hard to quantify just how much, if any, impact a full-fledged Richmond career could have had. Considering he drove in the same era and style as one Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, you’d have to believe one, if not multiple championships, would have swung his way instead. That alone would have swayed the type of heavyweight punch to change a sport forever, Earnhardt’s absence on the first induction likely in a building that could have very well one day sported Richmond’s bust.

The fact that will never come to pass is one of the most tragic, unfulfilled potential stories in the sport’s rich 61-year history. I’m just glad there’s a perfect documentary out there to do it justice.
 

Teaser:
ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary is a fitting and poignant look at the hard times and fast life of NASCAR's ultimate shooting star: Tim Richmond.
Post date: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 20:11
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/big-money-mcmurray
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

Kyle Busch led a ton of laps. Jamie McMurray scored his third unlikely win of a career-resurgent season. A debris caution flew with under 25 laps remaining. Yes, the Bank of America 500 from Charlotte Motor Speedway had a tinge of familiarity about it, with the most noticeable aspect being that Chase dictator Jimmie Johnson scored yet another top-3 finish.

Johnson overcame an early-race solo spin to drive through the field for his fourth consecutive run of third or better and extended his points lead to a not-yet-insurmountable 41 points. While the four-time defending champion dodged and weaved his way through the pack, Kyle Busch found the point on lap nine and led for 217 of the next 304 circuits. However, a caution flag thrown for debris on the backstretch on lap 310 incensed "Rowdy," bunched the field up for a final 20 laps and gave McMurray a final shot at scoring the first win by a non-Chaser thus far in 2010.

The Earnhardt-Ganassi driver took full advantage of a rare restart mistake by Busch and drove away in clean air to notch a third big win — along with victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 — in the 2010 season.

"I feel like I do a really good job when the tires spin [on restarts] of not spinning my tires," McMurray explained. "And it’s very hard to discipline yourself when you have 900 horsepower to not continue to push the throttle down till they spin. When they start spinning, you lose a tremendous amount of speed, and it’s very hard when you know victory lane is the difference of spinning the tires and not.

"You know, I went through Turns 1 and 2 wide open and I got a little bit of a run on Kyle and I heard the spotter say, ‘He’s still there ... he’s still there ... clear.’

"And as soon as I heard ‘clear,’ it’s amazing when his front bumper breaks the plane of your rear bumper, how you feel the car lurch forward, because there’s so much drag when they are side-drafting you. As soon as I heard the spotter say ‘clear’ and I felt that — that’s a pretty good feeling, I promise you."

Teaser:
"Big Money" McMurray broke through for another wins in Saturday's Bank of America 500 in Charlotte. Hot on heels, though, was points leader Jimmie Johnson, who increased his lead in the Chase standings to 41 points over Denny Hamlin.
Post date: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 13:54
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/news-notes
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

And the hits keep on coming
Clint Bowyer just can’t catch a break. Penalized a title-killing 150 points after his car passed post-race inspection and then failed a second, more thorough dissection at the NASCAR R&D Center three weeks ago, Bowyer’s team has been nailed twice more.

After a Friday media center tirade against NASCAR’s penalties, Bowyer was busted for speeding on pit road at Dover — twice. Then this past weekend, he was the victim of a debris caution with 16 laps to go, in a race he was winning handily. Although there was debris spotted, it looked well out of the racing groove and, according to Bowyer, had been there "the entire run" — a 25-lap period of time if you’re to believe him.

If your car is out of tolerance or you’re speeding down pit road or there is debris on the track, fine, the sanctioning body should take appropriate action. The problem lies in that NASCAR has set up the system so it can manipulate it, not that we have proof it always does. And in a case like Bowyer's, he looks like an easy target.

Some media members seem to take offense that their colleagues, as well as fans, continually paint NASCAR as the conspiratorial bad guy in the sort of situations cited above. What those media types (most of whom work for an outlet either owned by or partnered in some way with NASCAR and ISC) won’t admit is that if the system were set up transparently there wouldn’t be a need to look at things with such a skeptical eye.

If we could see the pit road speed being posted on a big bright board or if debris cautions were called with any consistency or penalties explained in any detail whatsoever, the amount of agnostic thinking in NASCAR Nation would diminish exponentially.

Note to the brass in Daytona: This isn’t 1978. The back-room justice and wink-wink, nudge-nudge penalties and rulings you could get away with then, when you were but a lovable little regional curiosity, isn’t accepted now that you claim to be a major league sport on par with the NFL, MLB, et al. And your ratings and attendance are reflecting that.

And your 2011 class is ...
Speckled with surprises. The Hall of Fame Class for 2011 was announced Wednesday. The inductees: David Pearson, Lee Petty, Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett and Bud Moore.

Pearson was the no-brainer, possibly the greatest ever and a man most believe should have been inducted in the inaugural class. Petty was close to a lock as well, being a three-time champion and patriarch of racing’s most famous family. Allison was a popular champion whose career is now defined by family and personal tragedy as much as on-track greatness. Jarrett is as well respected a driver and personality as anyone in NASCAR who helped build the sport, racking up 50 wins and a pair of titles in a career that for all intents and purposes, lasted only six full seasons. And Moore was a renowned owner and mechanic whose ingenuity and know-how transcended the NASCAR ranks.

The excluded? No Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Inman or Raymond Parks. Of course, they’ll get in — most likely next year — but then again, that’s what we said about a couple of these guys last year.

My ballot (if I had a vote) would’ve read: Pearson, Petty, Inman, Yarborough and Waltrip.

My make-believe ballot next year will read: Inman, Yarborough, Waltrip, Raymond Parks and Herb Thomas. T. Wayne Robertson may sneak in and knock one of those guys out, though.

Teaser:
Athlon Sports takes a trip around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit as the series heads home to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Post date: Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 10:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-1
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Finishes of first, second and third in the last three weeks find Johnson exactly where we all expected him: leading the points during the Chase. Let’s hope this doesn’t get ugly.

2. Kevin Harvick  There is a big drop off between Johnson and the rest of the field, but Harvick leads the rest of the best, averaging a 7.5-place run during the Chase.

3. Denny Hamlin  Hamlin is Driver No. 3 of the trio that should contend down the stretch. He and Johnson are both averaging a 7.75-place run during the Chase, but Denny hasn’t been quite as flashy.

4. Tony Stewart  Hindsight is 20/20: Had Stewart won in Loudon instead of running out of fuel on the last lap, he most likely would be 10 points behind Johnson in the standings.

5. Jeff Gordon  Gordon may have had the clutch performance of the Fontana weekend when he drove from 24th to ninth in the final 15 laps after a pit road speeding penalty.

6. Ryan Newman  Continues to run better than most of the Chase field after a fifth in Fontana.

7. Greg Biffle  Things looked promising after he won at Kansas. Then Fontana’s blown engine kind of negated all the good will.
    
8. Carl Edwards  Like his teammate Biffle, Edwards was feeling the good vibes until he took a 14-lap trip behind the wall at Auto Club Speedway.

Teaser:
Tony Stewart grabbed checkers in Fontana, but Jimmie Johnson continues to hold the top spot in Athlon Sports’ weekly Horsepower Rankings.
Post date: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 - 13:02
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/charlotte-motor-speedway
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

Location: Concord, N.C.
Distance: 1.5-mile quad oval
Banking/Turns: 24 degrees; Banking/Straightaways: 5 degrees
Race Dates: May 22 (All-Star Race), May 30 (Coca-Cola 600), October 16 (Bank of America 500)


From the Spotter’s Stand
Blame it on the rain. David Reutimann earned his first career Cup win at Charlotte with a Milli Vanilli move. After storms delayed the May 2009 race from Sunday to Monday, NASCAR ended the show with only 227 of 400 laps completed. As a result, Reutimann — who was in 14th place when the showers started on Lap 221 and led only five laps, all under the sixth and final caution — stole his first Cup win, which was also the first victory for Michael Waltrip Racing. Thanks to the fourth red flag, what should have been the longest race of the season, a 600-mile marathon, ended after only 341 miles.

All was right with the world in October, however, as Lowe’s primary pitchman Jimmie Johnson led 92 of the 334 (scheduled and completed) laps, cruising to a 2.303-second victory over runner-up Matt Kenseth. The King of Concord, Johnson has six wins — including four straight in 2004-05 — nine top 5s and 13 top-10 finishes in 18 career Cup races at the 1.5-mile quad-oval.

Kurt Busch decimated the field in this season’s Memorial Day Classic, leading 252 of 400 laps en route to capturing his first points-paying win in Charlotte. The elder Busch also took home a cool mil the week prior in the All-Star Race. It marked the seventh time a driver has won the All-Star and 600 races since 1985.

Active drivers beside Johnson with multiple wins at Charlotte include Jeff Gordon (5), Mark Martin (4), Jeff Burton (3), Kasey Kahne (3), Bill Elliott (2) and Bobby labonte (2).


Crew Chief’s Take
"Charlotte is probably the most weather-sensitive track we race on. Slight changes — cloud cover, sunshine, temperature — make almost an unbelievable difference. The challenge becomes adapting, and particularly in the case of the Coca-Cola 600, the races are really long there. The key is survive the early stages, when the sun is out, and be in position to battle for the win at night. The moisture in the air makes the track change, too. It makes it very difficult for a driver and crew chief to stay on top of it."


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
With finishes of first, second and third thus far in the Chase and six points-paying wins at Charlotte in his career, are you willing to bet against Jimmie Johnson?
Pretty Solid Pick: Regardless of equipment, Kasey Kahne can light this place up.
Good Sleeper Pick: Joey Logano has career finishes of ninth, fifth and 13th in points-paying runs in Charlotte.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has only one finish better than 28th in Concord, and that was an eighth-place showing in the 2009 Coke 600.
Insider Tip: The 600 has a history of first-time winners — the October event Ö not so much. Stick to the usual Chase subjects.


Classic Moments at Charlotte
The Sprint Cup All-Star Race has gone by many monikers, run under many formats and has seen more than its fair share of classic finishes. In 1985’s The Winston, the all-star event’s first running, a legendary field dubbed "The Dashing Dozen," kicked things off in style.

Terry Labonte sits on the pole by virtue of being the series’ defending champion, but Harry Gant inherits the lead after pit stops. Darrell Waltrip elects to wait to take tires, and when he does, he runs down Gant, passing him on the final lap.

Upon crossing the finish line, Waltrip’s engine blows, leading to speculation that the No. 11 Budweiser Chevy is running a big engine and that Waltrip was instructed by car owner Junior Johnson ìclutchî the car to avoid being penalized by NASCAR upon inspection of the powerplant.


May 2010 Race Winners
All-Star Race: Kurt Busch
Coca-Cola 600: Kurt Busch

Coca-Cola 600 Top 10
  1.  Kurt Busch
  2.  Jamie McMurray
  3.  Kyle Busch
  4.  Mark Martin
  5.  David Reutimann
  6.  Jeff Gordon
  7.  Clint Bowyer
  8.  Paul Menard
  9.  Ryan Newman
10.  Matt Kenseth

Coca-Cola 600 Laps Led
Kurt Busch — 252
Kyle Busch — 36
Jimmie Johnson — 36
Jamie McMurray — 29
Ryan Newman — 11
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 10
Matt Kenseth — 7
Clint Bowyer — 3
Jeff Gordon — 3
David Reutimann — 3
Brad Keselowski — 2
Five drivers led one lap

Teaser:
Race No. 4 of the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup takes the traveling circus of NASCAR back home to Charlotte.
Post date: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 - 10:56
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/monday-recap/not-dead-yet
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

Three Chase races down, three top three runs for the defending four-time series champion. On a day that may have witnessed the official end of seven drivers’ title hopes, points leader Jimmie Johnson held a steady wheel in California, finishing third in the Pepsi Max 400 from Auto Club Speedway and extending his lead in the Chase standings.

While Johnson held form, one driver considered an afterthought in the Chase, Tony Stewart, charged to the point on a restart with 13 laps to go and held off Johnson and a hard-charging Clint Bowyer to score his second win of the season.

"I'll be honest, when I woke up this morning I thought if we had a top-10 day that was going to be good, and if we ran in the top 5 today that was going to be an outstanding day," Stewart said. "You know, it just shows how hard this guy [crew chief Darian Grubb] works. Some of the crew guys and I, we were out, we went to a sprint car race last night and went to a fair and rode rides last night, and I can tell where Darian was. He didn't go very far from his computer and from the engineers. I guarantee they were busy last night.

"He told me this morning he found something that he was confident was going to be quite a bit different and better than yesterday [during practice], and he for sure didn’t disappoint on that. It was a big key."

Stewart was 23rd fastest in Saturday’s final practice session, and admitted the weekend prior to being in an all-or-nothing mindset. The changes made by Grubb allowed the No. 14 team to scratch their way back into title contention, gaining 20 points on Johnson to sit fifth, 107 points out.

"We have the flexibility to just look forward and not worry about if we take a gamble and it doesn’t work," Stewart said. "We still have to be mindful of it, obviously, but the penalty for us isn’t that great when you’re 10th in points. You can take a chance [on setups or raceday strategy], and if it doesn’t work out, what are you losing, two spots?"
 

Teaser:
Tony Stewart survived two wild late-race restarts to earn his first career win at Auto Club Speedway. Stewart's win moved him to within 107 points of leader Jimmie Johnson in the Chase standings with six races remaining in NASCAR's 2010 season. more
Post date: Monday, October 11, 2010 - 13:58
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-column/contact-sport
Body:

by Mike Neff

Despite the hype to the contrary, the battle for the championship in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup division involves all 43 cars on the race track, and this past weekend that fact was brought to the forefront by David Reutimann and Kyle Busch.

After Busch got into the back of Reutimann in Turns 1 and 2 and Reutimann backed into the wall, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver attempted to retaliate. The action ultimately wrecked Reutimann worse than Busch, but it did damage Busch’s car enough to prevent him from contending for the win with what was a top-5 car. The action has ignited a firestorm of debate among fans about the appropriateness of a driver outside of the Chase damaging the car of someone in the battle for the title and possibly ruining their title hopes.

This conundrum is nothing new. Since the Chase started there has been constant discussion among drivers about how the drivers outside the title hunt should race with the 12 battling for the Cup. The drivers generally hate the situation, but it all comes down to a question of ìwhy do you race?î The drivers at their core are racers, and whenever they get onto the track, they do so to win the race. If they can’t win they at least want to finish as high in the standings as possible. Having to tip-toe around other competitors is no way for a driver to have to act, and in the end the desire to beat the other competitors will overcome the need to give the Chasers a wide berth.

When that situation comes to fruition we’re faced with an occurrence like we had Sunday. Reutimann caused damage to Busch’s car after Busch had caused damage to Reutimann’s car. The end result was Busch took a hit in the Chase standings and Reutimann was relegated to a back-of-the-pack finish and a different image from when he started the race weekend.

NASCAR has painted itself into this box and now is stuck, unless it is willing to completely scrap the entire idea of a Chase and admit that a playoff-style format does not work when you’re dealing with a sport that has 43 competitors on the track. Racing is a different animal from stick and ball sports and the format of a playoff does not lend itself to a sport that has all of the teams involved on the same field of play at the same time.

Imagine how confusing and corrupted the football playoffs would be if all 12 teams that make it to the postseason took to the same field at the same time. Peyton Manning completes a pass to Reggie Wayne who had shaken loose from Darrelle Revis and while he’s running down the field, bumps into Joe Flacco who is scrambling away from Troy Polamalu and fumbles the ball, which is picked up by Arian Foster and run in for a touchdown.

It is an incredibly confusing set of circumstances that would have football fans screaming from the highest hills for Roger Goodell’s head. Yet that is the exact situation that NASCAR continues to force feed the fans on an annual basis as it tries to contend with America’s most popular sport. NASCAR not only force feeds it to the fans, but forces the drivers to race in a box where drivers with no shot at the championship are inches away from cars that have it all on the line while being on the very limit of control. Depending on the driver, one may back completely out of a situation like that and completely avoid the driver who has the title shot, so as not to negatively impact his title hopes. Another may stick his nose in even deeper, knowing the title contender won’t push his luck and take a chance on throwing his title hopes out the window for one spot.

When all is said and done, racing is still racing and there is very real, very human emotion involved in it that eventually overrides the thoughts, concerns and ramifications. If they are bumped or nudged out of the way they return the favor with even more fervor than it was given to them, and the end result can be a tangled mess — or at the very least, some bent sheet metal or truck arms. That is exactly what happened Sunday, and even though Reutimann admitted on Tuesday that he would have a hard time explaining the events to his child, in the heat of the moment there are times when reason and rational thought fly out the window and raw energy takes over.

Step into a room with a handful of NASCAR fans and it is a safe bet you’ll end up with an equal number on one side or the other of the Reutimann/Busch debate. Change the names of the drivers and, while the totals might change slightly, there is still going to be a pretty even split among the pros and cons. Like Busch, there are those who feel Reutimann would have been completely justified in taking him out in any of the 26 races of the ìregular seasonî next year. An equal number are going to feel as though the problem needed to be handled immediately, and it is a bad idea for someone to wait six months before they settle a score.

Driver personalities are also going to play some role in how this altercation is perceived by the fan base. Busch has been known to be a bit on the abrasive side when dealing with the media, and his hatred of losing tends to manifest itself in some less-than-flattering behavior. That, or he’s just a jerk, depending again on the opinion of the fans.

Reutimann, on the other hand, has been known as one of the nicest and most humble guys in the garage. That might have played into his crew chief Rodney Childers’ tirade on the pit stop after the incident when he threatened to quit if Reutimann didn’t start standing up to people who rough him up. The fact that Reutimann finally returned a favor on the track to someone who had wronged him — even if it was during the Chase and only one of the drivers had qualified for title contention — is all part of racing. After all, rubbing is racing, and sometimes people get rubbed too much and they have to rub back a little harder. And that rubbing can ruin someone’s day Ö or their title chances.

Above all, racing is supposed to be about winning and nothing else. NASCAR’s modern era has seemed to drift away from that and the sanctioning body has attempted to get it back with the ìHave at it, boysî policy reaffirmed last winter. Confrontations like Sunday’s happened thousands of times during Cup races back in the day. Fortunately for the drivers involved back then, the races were usually on short tracks where speeds were much lower than they are on the cookie-cutter ovals of today. And those drivers were not racing under the format of a playoff-style points battle; instead, it was about the win and little else.

Whether you are pro or con on the retribution debate, there is no doubt that the fracas on the track Sunday got everyone talking and once again pumped a little life into a sport that so desperately needs it.

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, October 8, 2010 - 12:44
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/nas-karma
Body:

by Vito Pugliese

A funny thing happened while Richard Childress was on his way to the penalty hearing Thursday for his No. 33 Sprint Cup team. Well, it wasn’t really funny. If anything it was downright insulting to the entire RCR organization. That being, the decision regarding its appeal of the 150-point penalty following a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway had, in his mind, been made days earlier. The appeals committee refuted the claims of an accident reconstruction engineer citing telemetry readings, successful template fitting, and irregularities with both rear quarter panels — not just the left rear that was originally the catalyst for all the commotion.

So certain of this outcome was Childress that he came with not only hat in hand, but checkbook as well, set to take the matter further up the ladder, all the way to the Supreme Court of NASCAR, chief appellate officer John Middlebrook.

The meeting with Middlebrook, a former GM executive and employee of almost 50 years (note: General Motors has been an RCR sponsor for nearly 30 years) will be Childress’ last ditch effort to rescind the 150-point fine and suspensions of crew chief Shane Wilson and car chief Chad Haney.

It also helps bide some time to help driver Clint Bowyer and the rest of the No. 33 team advance a little further in the Chase, although after last weekend’s disaster in Dover, this bunch is going to require the type of miracle that usually qualifies one for sainthood to have a prayer at contending for anything other than battling Matt Kenseth for last in the Chase standings.

Many have called the penalty and resulting appeal decision an injustice, the heavy hand of NASCAR making an example out of a team that rallied to make the final spot in the Chase during the final few weeks of the regular season. Others, however, view it as NASkarma taking a roundabout journey two decades later.

Twenty years ago, Childress and Dale Earnhardt were locked in a six-month back-and-forth battle for the 1990 Winston Cup with a relative NASCAR newcomer from the North in Jack Roush and a Midwestern short tracker who was getting his second shot at the big time, Mark Martin. After Roush and Martin won in their second career race together at Richmond, Childress protested the win, claiming Martin had a carburetor spacer plate that was too high and that said plate was bolted rather than welded to the intake manifold. This was an interesting item to protest, seeing as a NASCAR official’s hands physically contacted the area in question no less than three times that weekend — during practice, qualifying, and post-race tear down — and a half-inch difference and bolts would be pretty visible to somebody with even poor eyesight.

No matter, Childress phoned in the complaint to then NASCAR President Bill France Jr., who was laid up at home with a pair of broken legs. As Roush recalls, France promised Childress he would make things right. After all, Childress and Earnhardt just lost the ’89 title to Rusty Wallace by all of 12 points a few months earlier.

What France did not know was that there was a technical bulletin issued that weekend that actually cleared Roush’s No. 6 Ford of any wrong doing. According to Roush, France was unaware of the bulletin, deemed it unclear, and reverted to the rulebook instead.

The 46-point penalty was, at the time, one of the largest in NASCAR history — over what was not really anything illegal — and would end up costing Martin and Roush the 1990 championship by 26 points. It would take Roush another 13 years before he would win his first title, while Martin abandoned the pursuit in 2007, only to be lured back for a few more opportunities a couple years later.

While Childress and Earnhardt may have been given a gift, it wasn’t clear that it would have any bearing on the title outcome. An incident later in the fall, however, most certainly did. At the Mello Yello 500 in Charlotte that October, there were only four races left to decide the championship, and Earnhardt trailed Martin by a mere 16 points. Martin had just out-dueled Earnhardt the week before at North Wilkesboro, taking the lead after Earnhardt dominated the event with 37 laps to go.

Neither driver was having much luck this day, though. Martin started sixth but never led a lap, eventually finishing 14th, three laps down and on seven cylinders. Earnhardt faired even worse. He rolled of 15th, never led a lap, and had a disastrous incident on pit road.

The Flying Aces were The Intimidator’s pit crew at the time, renowned for their excellence and speed of execution. Unfortunately, they did not secure the tires to the black No. 3 before Earnhardt exited his stall — mind you, this was in the day when there was no such thing as a pit road speed limit — and all four tires went flying off his leper-like Lumina. His car sat crippled, unable to move on the apron of Turn 1. Realizing the machine was immobile, the Goodwrench crew ran down pit road with a jack and tools in hand to work on the car out of the pit box — essentially on the racetrack.

Earnhardt would finish the day 25th, however no points penalty was issued for the crew ignoring a NASCAR official’s order to not run down pit road where cars would enter and exit at over 100 mph, and servicing the vehicle on the racetrack.

What would such a penalty bring today? Jimmy Watts, crew member for Marcos Ambrose was suspended for four races in 2009 for running into the tri-oval infield at Atlanta while retrieving a loose tire that had rolled away. So can you imagine if the entire crew went to go pit the car at the exit of Turn 4?

This year, following the second race at Richmond, the No. 33 RCR Chevrolet was ferreted off to the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C., for further deconstruction and evaluation. While not found illegal at the track, NASCAR made it clear to the RCR camp that it was not pleased with the trend that it had seen with their cars, and asked that the RCR camp back things down to stay within the rules that had been established for the mounting of the body on the chassis.

NASCAR has not been bashful about issuing fines for tinkering with the body since the CoT debuted in 2007. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 100 points that year for issues related to the mounting brackets on the rear wing, while his crew chief cousin, Tony Eury Jr., was suspended for six events. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, was punished for having flared out fenders on the No. 48 at Sonoma later that year. He was fined $100,000 and also suspended for six races. Then again, Knaus had an adjustable rear window for Daytona 500 qualifying in 2006, so the flared fenders, in comparison, were really quite tame.

Upon leaving the appeal hearing Thursday in Concord, Childress said he was not surprised by the decision and that he understood how the appeals system was structured. The date of the appeal to Middlebrook has not been announced, however NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, who happened to be the crew chief on Martin’s Roush Ford that 1990 season, believes it will be early next week. The announcement could come in time for the weekend at Fontana or — how is this for a quirky coincidence — Charlotte.

132 appeals have been heard in NASCAR’s 62 years. The outcomes are as follows:

• 92 decisions upheld.
• 28 penalties reduced.
• 10 penalties overturned.
• 2 penalties increased.

If recent appeal results and the findings of the appeal committee Thursday is any indication how the ruling may pan out, Childress might just want to put a stop-payment on that check and worry about getting some new guys to cover for Wilson and Haney for the next month and a half.

Karma, they say, is a bi .. err, most unpleasant. Even more so when she shows up 20 years later.
 

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, October 8, 2010 - 12:40
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/confusion-secrecy-surround-nascar-penalties
Body:

by Tom Bowles

 

Sometimes, NASCAR can stand to learn from the best, which according to the audience numbers in America is the NFL. This week’s Monday Night Football was razor-thin close – and I’m talking that new Gillette kind you see in the commercials, not the 1950s one your granddad uses that leaves him sitting there with a five o’clock shadow at six. After San Francisco tied it with less than two minutes left, New Orleans’ Drew Brees drove his team down the field and into position for a game-winning field goal. But all of a sudden, just as Garrett Hartley was about to kick, the whistle blew. Puzzled, both teams stared with shock as the New Orleans offensive line was called to a meeting with the black-and-white striped officiating crew.

“Listen,” said the head ref, putting on glasses and reciting rules like a professor lecturing his class. “I saw you guys nearly move off the line there. It didn’t happen, but was real close; you do that the next time, and we’ll issue a false start and cost your team five yards on the field. Got it?”

Alright, so maybe that story didn’t really happen. In the end, Hartley won with a last-second kick that reminded race fans of the dramatic edge they used to have over their pigskin counterparts. But could you imagine a stick ‘n’ ball sport stopping to remind people of how to follow the rules? In the end, you’re either legal or you’re not … right?

NASCAR would do well to remember that in light of their latest, embarrassing incident regarding Clint Bowyer. In case you missed it, a 150-point penalty was issued to Bowyer and owner Richard Childress, along with a $150,000 fine to crew chief Shane Wilson and six-week suspensions for Wilson and car chief Chad Haney. But those penalties were from violations in body tolerance found after a teardown of the team’s New Hampshire car, a full two days after it was sitting in Victory Lane following a surprise victory from the Chase’s just-barely-made-it 12th seed. Just the sheer fact you can disqualify a car over 48 hours later is confusing enough, yet the real wrench comes in the face of meetings NASCAR had with RCR officials to warn them after the regular season finale at Richmond one week earlier.

“A big responsibility of NASCAR is to work as hard to keep people out of trouble as it is to right penalties,” Sprint Cup Director John Darby said, in defense of NASCAR’s “lay the smackdown” meeting before it, well, laid the smackdown one week later. “Obviously, when it gets to the point that we have to write a penalty, it’s not fun for everybody. So if we can take steps in the interim or in the in-betweens to put something to rest and not have it be an issue, well, by all means we’ll exhaust every effort that we can to do that.”

That’s where I think the sport is wrong. I don’t know about you, but there was a big difference in handing in homework from junior high school compared to your professional job. If I don’t hand in a paper in junior high school, cry and say my dog ate it, I probably get another chance. If I don’t hand in this column, well, Athlon Sports better find someone else to hire real quick. In the top-level motorsports series in America, you don’t have a 1-on-1 conference with someone to explain to them how to do their jobs under the rules. That type of behavior is already expected, and NASCAR serves as the enforcer to determine what’s legal and what’s not. The role of sixth-grade teacher left the building somewhere around the local short track level.

Just the public knowledge of these full-fledged conversations, once again after the fact inspires the same type of confusion and secrecy concerns that surround NASCAR’s under-the-table driver fines. If officials felt the need to meet after Richmond, inevitably questions arise. Was that car really illegal and no one wants to admit it, an embarrassing mistake that would have caused 13th-place Ryan Newman to enter the Chase on a technicality? Does that give that organization an unfair advantage say, Roush Fenway won’t find later if their car appears 1/16 of an inch off tolerance in post-race Dover inspection? (Amazingly enough, that’s how close RCR’s No. 33 was to passing – about the width of 15 pieces of paper). What was different between this incident and Hendrick Motorsports’ “warning” during the Chase one year earlier? (For the record, officials say the RCR chassis, while new, didn’t address the issues they talked about while HMS responded immediately to NASCAR’s concerns. But how do we really know?)

These head-scratchers are all part of a continuing irony of inequality couched within a push towards parity. NASCAR wants all cars created equal, yet possesses the ability to treat teams differently anytime a potential problem comes up. It’s an ugly web the sanctioning body is spinning, stifling the concepts of innovation while failing to address the officiating problems that continue to plague it, both in private and in public.

The issues worsen when you try and sit down and explain the potential problems NASCAR discovers. In any other sport, a disputed call is shown on television, replays from even the super-zoom-slow-mo-we-paid-five-million-dollars-for-one-shot camera that give you every possible way to make a judgment call yourself. Compare that to NASCAR, where in a Wednesday conference call a reporter from the Kansas City Star (not someone I recognized as being a full-time member of the NASCAR beat) asked a seemingly innocuous question: What, in essence, did officials find wrong with Bowyer’s car? It’s something every casual fan wants to know, explained in English, 140 characters or less (after all, we are the Twitter generation) put together in a way they can take it to the office and small talk.

Here’s your answer:

“Well, it was the measurements that we take,” said Darby. Uh-oh. I smell vagueness coming. “And we take a lot of them in post-race, but specifically it revolves around how the body of the car is located on the frame in all three coordinates, X, Y and Z, which is fore and aft, left and right, up and down. Respectfully, and I hope you'll understand this, our teams do have the ability to proceed with an appeal, so to really get into some of the actual specific measurements of the car, and car numbers I don’t think would be fair to either the RCR group or NASCAR itself, so I’ll decline from that.”

OK, take that first sentence and explain to me what part of the car is off. Waiting … waiting … yeah, I couldn’t figure it out, either. Luckily, an RCR press statement announcing its appeal of the ruling acknowledged the left-rear of the car was too high, off by that miniscule 1/16th of an inch casually referred to earlier. So “being fair” and withholding knowledge of the infraction that could influence the National Stock Car Racing Commission – which NASCAR has a hand in appointing, by the way – lasted all but one hour, thirty minutes before a press release by someone else informed us more than a 25-minute teleconference filled with reporters whose reactions would help shape national opinion throughout the country.

Looking back, it’s amazing that through every step of the process NASCAR has served to inform the wrong people at the wrong time. Maybe that’s been its issue all along, in need of a communications expert to schedule where and when they should talk with anyone around them. All I can tell you is the more NASCAR deals in shades of gray, the more it’ll risk losing the respect and the audience of fans whose attention spans deal increasingly in the forms of short, public information that comes to them in forms of black and white.

NASCAR has been warned.

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, October 8, 2010 - 12:34
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-0
Body:

Jimmie Johnson ascends to the top in both Athlon Sports’ weekly Horsepower Rankings as well as NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup standings following a runner-up finish in last weekend’s Price Chopper 400 from Kansas Speedway.

1. Jimmie Johnson  Jimmie’s weekend: Overheat the engine and qualify 21st, spin in practice, drop to 30-something early in race, make adjustments, don’t panic, drive through field, finish second. Vintage.

2. Kevin Harvick  Harvick was nearly as impressive, qualifying 24th (typical), tinkering with the car through the first half of the race (as usual) and sneaking in under-the-radar for a third-place finish (just like they drew it up).

3. Carl Edwards  With Edwards sitting just 53 points out of first in the standings, people are starting to whisper that a winless champion may, in fact, be a possibility. Whether or not that’s a good thing is another question.

4. Denny Hamlin  Breezed through the two trackd he was worried about (New Hampshire and Dover), but stumbled at one where he expected to run well.

5. Jeff Gordon  Consistency only gets you so far. Case in point: Gordon, with zero wins but 11 top 5s, sits fifth in the point standings, trailing drivers that total 15 wins. And Carl Edwards.

6. Kyle Busch  Live by the sword, die by the sword.

7. Tony Stewart  Fourth-place run at Kansas shows this team can still get it done, but its feast or famine nature has all but eliminated it from title contention.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - 11:07
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings
Body:

Jimmie Johnson ascends to the top in both Athlon Sports’ weekly Horsepower Rankings as well as NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup standings following a runner-up finish in last weekend’s Price Chopper 400 from Kansas Speedway.

1. Jimmie Johnson  Jimmie’s weekend: Overheat the engine and qualify 21st, spin in practice, drop to 30-something early in race, make adjustments, don’t panic, drive through field, finish second. Vintage.

2. Kevin Harvick  Harvick was nearly as impressive, qualifying 24th (typical), tinkering with the car through the first half of the race (as usual) and sneaking in under-the-radar for a third-place finish (just like they drew it up).

3. Carl Edwards  With Edwards sitting just 53 points out of first in the standings, people are starting to whisper that a winless champion may, in fact, be a possibility. Whether or not that’s a good thing is another question.

4. Denny Hamlin  Breezed through the two trackd he was worried about (New Hampshire and Dover), but stumbled at one where he expected to run well.

5. Jeff Gordon  Consistency only gets you so far. Case in point: Gordon, with zero wins but 11 top 5s, sits fifth in the point standings, trailing drivers that total 15 wins. And Carl Edwards.

6. Kyle Busch  Live by the sword, die by the sword.

7. Tony Stewart  Fourth-place run at Kansas shows this team can still get it done, but its feast or famine nature has all but eliminated it from title contention.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - 11:06
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/plains-dealer-0
Body:

NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup tightened up on a day when seven Chase drivers took turns atop the scoring pylon and finished in the top 10. In the end, though, it was Greg Biffle, in a 140-point championship hole and an afterthought in the title hunt, whose car was dialed in when it mattered. Biffle led the final 28 laps in the Price Chopper 400 from Kansas Speedway to earn his second win of the season.

“You know, everybody asked us last week if we’re out the Chase, have we given up, whatever the case was,” Biffle said. “The 16 team will never give up. We’re just going to approach each race like we did today: qualify the best we can, do the best we can in practice, execute the best we can at the racetrack. We’re going to go to California and do the same thing, Charlotte Motor Speedway, you know, see what happens.”

Tony Stewart led a race-high 76 laps, but Biffle and his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team lurked in the top 5 throughout the day. He first took the lead on lap 188 of 267 and made the deciding pass of Paul Menard on lap 239.

“I was just reluctant to adjust on the car,” Biffle confessed. “You know, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’kind of attitude.When you’re running the worst you’ve run all day — fifth or sixth, most of the day you’ve run third —you hate to start adjusting on things just to see what it’s going to do. ‘Well, let’s just try this.’ You don't want to go backwards.

“I didn't want them to stick the wedge wrench through the window and start turning on it.Finally,I decided I could run right there with Tony [Stewart], then he started to get loose.I could pull back in on him.We were pretty even.I thought if I could get a little bit better where I could put the gas down coming off of Turn 4 —that’s where he beat me is Turn 4, everybody beat me there — I could beat him in [Turns] 1 and 2, I’d be good.

“So we put wedge in it, air in the left rear.My gosh, that was it, it was over.The car picked up a tenth, tenth-and-a-half [of a second] a lap.I put another wedge in it when we did the next set of tires, and the thing was faster yet.”

Perhaps overshadowing Biffle’s win, which brought him to within 85 markers of the points lead, was Jimmie Johnson’s perseverance. Johnson qualified 21st and spent much of the day mired in heavy traffic. Working feverishly to help the handling of the machine, Johnson fell back in the 30s at one point before methodically working his way through the field to finish second.

“Honestly, I drove 400 miles with my tongue hanging out just, sawing at the wheel trying to get everything I could,” Johnson said. “[I’m] very pleased to have walked that fine line and didn’t make any mistakes. My crew did the same. Chad [Knaus, crew chief] called a great race. We needed all those things to work together in order to get a good finish and we did that.”

The runner-up effort propelled Johnson past Denny Hamlin, who finished 12th, into the championship lead by a scant eight points.

Kevin Harvick, by virtue of a third-place finish, gained ground in the title hunt, as well. Harvick sits third,30 points in arrears of Johnson.

“We had a strong car really from the drop of the green flag all the way till the end,” Harvick said. “Obviously, we would have liked to win.We lost some track position there on those last couple pit stops — just took a little bit longer to get through traffic than we would have liked. [I] felt like we had a great car and just finished third and on to California we go.”

Stewart dropped to fourth in the rundown after holding point for much of the race. Fellow Chasers Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth finished fifth-through-seventh. Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.

Kyle Busch suffered the biggest points hit of the day. After a lap 53 incident with David Reutimann, in which Reutimann’s car spun and made contact with the wall, Busch was given a dose of payback. Reutimann ran up on the No. 18 car off of Turn 2 and made hard contact on lap 156. The resulting damage to Busch’s rear suspension and aerodynamics hindered his efforts. He finished 21st.

“It’s just really unfortunate, you know,”Busch said. “These guys work their butts off and to put ourselves in the Chase and to have the opportunity to try to go after a championship and to have it end up something like that today.

“The guy [Reutimann] was loose, [he] said it on the radio. He slid up off the bottom and I got into him unintentionally and just spun him out — my fault, 100 percent. But then the retaliation to a guy that’s in the Chase that’s racing for something … he’ll be here next year. He could’ve wrecked me in any of the first 26 races next year, that would’ve been fine.

“It’s just hard to swallow something like a day like today where we had a top-5 car going. We salvaged the best we could, but still far off of where we could’ve been.”

Reutimann, who has had a couple run-ins with Busch in the past, had a much different point of view.

“I don’t care if you’re in the Chase or not,” Reutimann said. “You need to think about who you’re running over when you’re running over them. I don’t care who you are. If you’re in the Chase, you have as much responsibility to drive with respect as I do or anybody else.”

The top eight drivers in the Chase standings are within 85 points of the lead. After the aforementioned top three, Edwards (-53) is fourth, followed by Gordon (-58), Kurt Busch (-70), Kyle Busch (-80) and Biffle (-85). Jeff Burton took a hit, dropping from seventh (-80) to ninth (-101) after finishing 18th in Kansas.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - 10:50
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/plains-dealer
Body:

NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup tightened up on a day when seven Chase drivers took turns atop the scoring pylon and finished in the top 10. In the end, though, it was Greg Biffle, in a 140-point championship hole and an afterthought in the title hunt, whose car was dialed in when it mattered. Biffle led the final 28 laps in the Price Chopper 400 from Kansas Speedway to earn his second win of the season.

“You know, everybody asked us last week if we’re out the Chase, have we given up, whatever the case was,” Biffle said. “The 16 team will never give up. We’re just going to approach each race like we did today: qualify the best we can, do the best we can in practice, execute the best we can at the racetrack. We’re going to go to California and do the same thing, Charlotte Motor Speedway, you know, see what happens.”

Tony Stewart led a race-high 76 laps, but Biffle and his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team lurked in the top 5 throughout the day. He first took the lead on lap 188 of 267 and made the deciding pass of Paul Menard on lap 239.

“I was just reluctant to adjust on the car,” Biffle confessed. “You know, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’kind of attitude.When you’re running the worst you’ve run all day — fifth or sixth, most of the day you’ve run third —you hate to start adjusting on things just to see what it’s going to do. ‘Well, let’s just try this.’ You don't want to go backwards.

“I didn't want them to stick the wedge wrench through the window and start turning on it.Finally,I decided I could run right there with Tony [Stewart], then he started to get loose.I could pull back in on him.We were pretty even.I thought if I could get a little bit better where I could put the gas down coming off of Turn 4 —that’s where he beat me is Turn 4, everybody beat me there — I could beat him in [Turns] 1 and 2, I’d be good.

“So we put wedge in it, air in the left rear.My gosh, that was it, it was over.The car picked up a tenth, tenth-and-a-half [of a second] a lap.I put another wedge in it when we did the next set of tires, and the thing was faster yet.”

Perhaps overshadowing Biffle’s win, which brought him to within 85 markers of the points lead, was Jimmie Johnson’s perseverance. Johnson qualified 21st and spent much of the day mired in heavy traffic. Working feverishly to help the handling of the machine, Johnson fell back in the 30s at one point before methodically working his way through the field to finish second.

“Honestly, I drove 400 miles with my tongue hanging out just, sawing at the wheel trying to get everything I could,” Johnson said. “[I’m] very pleased to have walked that fine line and didn’t make any mistakes. My crew did the same. Chad [Knaus, crew chief] called a great race. We needed all those things to work together in order to get a good finish and we did that.”

The runner-up effort propelled Johnson past Denny Hamlin, who finished 12th, into the championship lead by a scant eight points.

Kevin Harvick, by virtue of a third-place finish, gained ground in the title hunt, as well. Harvick sits third,30 points in arrears of Johnson.

“We had a strong car really from the drop of the green flag all the way till the end,” Harvick said. “Obviously, we would have liked to win.We lost some track position there on those last couple pit stops — just took a little bit longer to get through traffic than we would have liked. [I] felt like we had a great car and just finished third and on to California we go.”

Stewart dropped to fourth in the rundown after holding point for much of the race. Fellow Chasers Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth finished fifth-through-seventh. Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.

Kyle Busch suffered the biggest points hit of the day. After a lap 53 incident with David Reutimann, in which Reutimann’s car spun and made contact with the wall, Busch was given a dose of payback. Reutimann ran up on the No. 18 car off of Turn 2 and made hard contact on lap 156. The resulting damage to Busch’s rear suspension and aerodynamics hindered his efforts. He finished 21st.

“It’s just really unfortunate, you know,”Busch said. “These guys work their butts off and to put ourselves in the Chase and to have the opportunity to try to go after a championship and to have it end up something like that today.

“The guy [Reutimann] was loose, [he] said it on the radio. He slid up off the bottom and I got into him unintentionally and just spun him out — my fault, 100 percent. But then the retaliation to a guy that’s in the Chase that’s racing for something … he’ll be here next year. He could’ve wrecked me in any of the first 26 races next year, that would’ve been fine.

“It’s just hard to swallow something like a day like today where we had a top-5 car going. We salvaged the best we could, but still far off of where we could’ve been.”

Reutimann, who has had a couple run-ins with Busch in the past, had a much different point of view.

“I don’t care if you’re in the Chase or not,” Reutimann said. “You need to think about who you’re running over when you’re running over them. I don’t care who you are. If you’re in the Chase, you have as much responsibility to drive with respect as I do or anybody else.”

The top eight drivers in the Chase standings are within 85 points of the lead. After the aforementioned top three, Edwards (-53) is fourth, followed by Gordon (-58), Kurt Busch (-70), Kyle Busch (-80) and Biffle (-85). Jeff Burton took a hit, dropping from seventh (-80) to ninth (-101) after finishing 18th in Kansas.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - 10:48

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