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2010's 13 Tough Questions

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual

1. Should NASCAR “Jimmie-proof” the Chase by rotating the venues that host the events?

Good luck trying to “Jimmie-proof” anything these days. Many observers cite Johnson’s success in the Chase as a product of visiting tracks that he favors. It’s true that Johnson’s record at the 10 tracks involved in the Chase is sterling — his 18 Chase wins are proof of that.

What these observers fail to understand, though, is the reason Johnson excels at these specific tracks: Crew chief Chad Knaus’ strategy.
Knaus’ yearlong game plan is to work toward the season-ending Chase, and he does so by using the 26-race regular season as an extended test session of sorts. Particular emphasis is placed on collecting data that translates to their Chase setups.

If NASCAR used a rotating Chase format (an idea wholeheartedly supported here), Knaus would simply change the team’s focus and apply the notes to the re-designed playoffs.

After all, for a driver as versatile as Johnson, why do you think he’s never won at a track like Bristol? Answer: Bristol’s notes don’t translate to a Chase track, so while the Bristol night race is a biggie, it doesn’t play into their “big prize” quest, and that’s what Knaus has his eye on.

2. Should Lance McGrew have been retained as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief?

In a word, no. Just check out the numbers alone: In 24 races with McGrew, Junior scored only two top-10 finishes, as compared to three in a dozen races with former chief Tony Eury Jr. Let’s take that one step further: In his last dozen races with McGrew, Junior ran no better than 11th, posting an average finish of 26.7 while his three teammates raced to a 1-2-3 finish in the Chase.

Through it all, the same old problems remained for the No. 88 during races — the car started off strong but was taken out of contention due to adjustments.

But what’s more troubling is the stuff you can’t measure on a stats sheet: A driver’s mental confidence, and Earnhardt’s has fallen to zero. “I’m about to the end of my rope,” he said in October. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for anything involving the status quo — and he didn’t stop there.

“If I told you that I wanted to be with Lance next year,” he added, “I wouldn’t be telling you that out of my knowledge of expertise and talent. I’d be telling you because it’s fun hanging out with him.” Uh-oh. The “fun” factor sticks out to us, as it’s the “buddy-buddy” connection with Eury Jr. that left the duo stuck together for far longer than they should have been.

We know what you’re thinking — if McGrew’s not the answer, who is? Well, Junior’s best years were with Tony Eury Sr. at the helm, an older, fiery personality who wasn’t his best buddy off the track but knew how to push Junior’s buttons on it. A bossy, overbearing personality like Chad Knaus would be a perfect fit, so why won’t Hendrick go out and find one?

3. What’s to come in the sordid tale of Jeremy Mayfield?

The answer may begin to play itself out in September, the earliest Mayfield’s suit against NASCAR could go to trial. Mayfield, who failed a random drug test at Richmond last May, continues to plead his innocence in the matter, claiming that a mixture of the prescription drug Adderal and Claritin-D showed up as a false positive for methamphetamines.

Mayfield took another test at NASCAR’s request after a bizarre series of events that ultimately led to another positive result. Mayfield also produced negative drug-test results through an independent lab and claimed that NASCAR was using his case as a warning to others on the circuit as to how it would handle such offenses.

NASCAR’s drug policy is more of an outline, not citing what substances (prescription or otherwise) are banned, causing drivers to demand that a list be made available to them after Mayfield’s first failed test — the fear being that an over-the-counter medication such as Claritin-D (a NASCAR sponsor) could trigger a false positive. NASCAR CEO Brian France countered that there was a list that drivers could ask to see, although with ever-evolving performance-enhancing drugs, the list would never be absolute.

NASCAR, of course, prefers to keep its dirty laundry in the hamper, and other than the Mauricia Grant sexual and racial discrimination suit that was settled out of court last year, this has the potential to be the most damaging case against it. NASCAR is a privately owned business that doesn’t have to open its books to anyone — unless the courts demand to see certain personal and business information in a hearing, making that information available to the public.

In short, this case going to trial is a nightmare scenario for NASCAR — not because it’s afraid of losing to Mayfield, but because the public would get a look behind the curtain. And all indications are that Mayfield will fight this to the bitter end.

4. Will Danica Patrick succeed in NASCAR?

The answer to this question lies in the hands of Mrs. Patrick herself. However, one wonders if her entry strategy is the optimal one. Patrick is to run approximately 12 races in the Nationwide Series this season and an undetermined amount the year after. According to Juan Pablo Montoya (and who better to weigh in?), that isn’t the way to approach this challenge.

“Danica, I think she’s got the talent and everything but I don’t think she knows what she’s getting into,” Montoya said last June, when rumors of her impending jump began to spring up. “They’re so different to drive. … It’s not the same feeling. I wouldn’t be doing both cars, to be honest with you. That’s my advice.”

Jumping back and forth between a nimble IndyCar rocket and a sluggish NASCAR tank won’t do the muscle memory any favors. Familiarizing other drivers with your driving style — and theirs to yours — is an important and often overlooked component that will take an even longer period of time with her planned schedule.

The rule of thumb says it takes a driver three full years to acclimate totally with the Cup cars. Given that Patrick will have only two part-time seasons under her belt — we’ll say 30 races — by the time Mark Martin’s contract is up in Rick Hendrick’s Cup stable, it most certainly will not be enough on-the-job training to make an immediate impact in Cup.

Of course, marketability is the name of the game these days, so even if the results aren’t there, the dollars to keep her in the seat will be. Guess it’s dependent on how one views success, huh?

5. Can Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne succeed as “lame duck” drivers with teams that are trying to build for the future?

Yes — to a point. Virtually every driver involved in a high-profile ride switch has won a race before officially departing; it’s a final burst of adrenaline that doubles as a “send-off” party, validating their years of success as a “family.” Sometimes, as in the case of Tony Stewart in 2008 and Kyle Busch in ’07, there’s enough of these short-term momentum boosts to propel a driver into the Chase.

But to find Victory Lane on any given day is one thing; to achieve the focus and consistency to win a championship is all but impossible. Anyone who’s gone through a divorce knows what we’re talking about. Even in the most amicable breakup, bad days are inevitable that make you take your “eyes off the prize” and lead to mistakes you wouldn’t normally make. Considering the perfection required with the Chase system, then, it’s no surprise that the best any “lame duck” driver has finished under this format is fifth place. That honor belongs to Kyle Busch, and he still wound up 430 points behind champ Jimmie Johnson after a horrid start left him out of title contention early.

The fact that Kahne and Harvick are on teams that sent only one of eight eligible drivers into the Chase last season doesn’t help their cause, either. A few wins apiece isn’t out of the question, but simply a berth in the playoffs would be a monumental achievement while both spend the year dreaming of better days ahead in 2011.

6. Was NASCAR too harsh in penalizing Carl Long for an “oversized” engine at the All-Star Race?

Too harsh? Yeah, you might say that.

Independent owner/driver Carl Long brought a car to the Sprint Showdown — the “wild card” qualifying event for the All-Star Race — during All-Star festivities in Charlotte last May. Long had no shot at transferring into the big show, because the used engine’s horsepower reading taken from a dynamometer one week prior had showed it down about 50 horsepower from a standard mount.

When NASCAR inspected the engine before the race, inspectors found the cubic-inch displacement to be 358.17. The maximum allowed is 358. The sanctioning body not only disallowed his entry, but it also went about making an example of Long, leveling a record 200 owner- and championship-points penalty, a 12-race suspension and a $200,000 fine for his crew chief, Charles Swing.
For an independent owner/driver on a tight budget, that was all she wrote for Carl.

While it’s true that rules must govern a body, how can an entity like NASCAR, which has a long and storied history of operating within the “gray area” in matters of rules enforcement, suddenly go so “black and white” on a guy like Long? And what’s more, how can NASCAR penalize a driver so severely when the event in question was an exhibition race?

Long said it best himself when he told ESPN that, “Big Bill and Bill Jr. ruled the sport like a father — at the end of the day they took care of their family. These guys don’t care. They don’t have any heart. Basically, it seems like they don’t care about the sport, they just want to make a dollar.”

Unfortunately, that sure looks like a pretty accurate appraisal of the sport’s sanctioning body right now, doesn’t it?

7. Will Tony Stewart — or any other driver, for that matter — win a championship by getting engines and chassis supplied by a Chase competitor?

For our answer, let’s turn to none other than Rick Hendrick:

“It’s good to see all of our guys, the teams we support with motors and cars run well,” he said once Stewart took the points lead back in May.

“We’re proud of that. But at the end of the day, when it gets down to the Chase, we want to win with these guys.”

That quote speaks volumes about how Hendrick support shifts internally during the playoffs. Let’s make a comparison to another sport for a second: If the Carolina Panthers loan information to the Atlanta Falcons all year to help them both make the postseason, do you think they’re going to keep working together when they’re playing against each other on the field?! The answer is no, because only one team gets a chance to move on to win the Super Bowl.

That’s exactly what’s happening here. During the regular season, Hendrick and SHR aren’t rivals to a certain degree, because if they perform to the best of their ability, all six cars could make a 12-car Chase. But once those playoffs begin, only one team stands alone as the champion, and it’s in each owner’s best interest to win that trophy for himself.

How’s that old saying go? “Second place is the first loser,” and Hendrick, despite all their teamwork, hasn’t forgotten it. They have the control to keep SHR a level below them, and there’s no reason to think that didn’t happen during a 10-race playoff where both Stewart and Ryan Newman mysteriously fell off down the stretch — at tracks where they had run well in the spring. So until they build equipment of their own, that’s how it’ll always be — good, but never good enough compared to the hand that feeds them.

8. After what happened during last fall’s race at Talladega, are drivers ready to take a united stand to force an end to restrictor plate racing after 22 years?

Let’s put it this way: It’s the closest to “yes” we’ve ever come. For the first time, rumblings of a Driver’s Union are underway after NASCAR endured the equivalent of an on-track protest — 43 men racing single-file to prove a point for most of the race’s 500 miles.

And once the end of the race turned into typical Talladega — bad bumps, big wrecks and a whole lot of near-death escapes — there was a noticeable change in tone from defeatism to defiance as the smoke cleared. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr., the restrictor plate king, took a few shots at NASCAR, saying, “I don’t think anybody wants to be out there and involved in what happens at the end. Dodging cars, seeing people flip upside down. Obviously, there is something else that needs to be thought about.”

That’s a big step from even last April, when Carl Edwards’ flip left him resigned to the dangers of plate racing going forward (“We’ll race like this until we kill somebody, and then we’ll change it.”) and had him waving the white flag of surrender before even registering a complaint.

What’s NASCAR’s reaction to all the rhetoric? Zilch, as absolutely no changes are expected heading into the Daytona 500 in February. That’s left more than a few drivers dissatisfied behind the scenes, although a showdown isn’t expected until the next time the circuit visits Talladega in April.

All it will take is one serious injury from this safety-conscious group to lead to rumblings of a formal driver protest for the first time since — you guessed it — Talladega back in 1969.

9. Has a fuel-injected engine’s time finally come to NASCAR?

Name a major racing series on the planet that does not use a fuel-injected engine. Still thinking? That’s because basically every one does. Formula-1, IndyCar, NHRA, Grand Am, American Le Mans — all are series that run fuel-injected engines, in some cases for decades.

The lone remaining holdout (excluding the Big Foot and Grave Digger crowd) is NASCAR. And while the tried-and-true Holly has worked well since the sport’s inception, at some point progress is good. So is some semblance of what stock car racing originally was: Street machines put to the track.

To clarify how antiquated NASCAR’s engine specs are, one need look no further than 2004, when Toyota entered the Truck Series. Not having an engine that employed a pushrod, rocker arm or carburetor, the automaker was forced to develop one specifically for competition in NASCAR.

Foresight by the sanctioning body is a necessity here, and luckily it appears fuel injection may be introduced in 2011. For if the current state of the American auto industry does not improve drastically, what other manufacturers would be willing to go the route of Toyota and develop outdated “technology” for use in the series?

American auto racing in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s helped advance technology in the production of cars through the ingenuity of the mechanics who yearned to build a better mousetrap. Having an engine in today’s NASCAR that was readily identifiable to street cars would only help in returning to that goal — and would make the sport healthier at the same time.

10. Should the 2009 Daytona 500 have been called due to rain?

Absolutely. According to the rulebook, any race that makes it one lap past halfway is scored as an official event. Yet the same fans preaching consistency through ditching the Chase for the old points format — in which every race is weighted the same — want special rules that put the Daytona 500 on a pedestal.

Sorry, folks, but you can’t have it both ways. It’s rare for Mother Nature to interfere with the Great American Race to the degree it did that fateful Sunday, as it’s only the fourth time in 51 years that rain caused an early ending. And doesn’t impending weather add to the overall drama of the race? One could argue that it caused drivers to run more aggressively, held captive through the unpredictability of an uncertain ending. Once the downpour finally came, Matt Kenseth won fair and square under the rules, armed with the “racing luck” that’s given several 500 winners an unlikely trophy through the years (remember Derrike Cope in 1990?). Isn’t getting the right break at the right time just part of the sport?

Many have argued that the Super Bowl doesn’t end during the fourth quarter, but at the same time, hasn’t the philosophy of molding NASCAR after the NFL gotten it in trouble to begin with? If anything, anger from fans should be directed towards the late start time of well past 3:00 pm EST, which shortened the window to restart the race if bad weather intervened. Considering the change back to a 1:00 start time for 2010, that problem is now corrected — which means there’s nothing more to discuss.

11. Why did NASCAR take the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin to its R&D Center after the Dover Chase race and after each event thereafter?

The word from NASCAR was that the Johnson and Martin cars’ rear tolerances were very close to exceeding center line specs, and came dangerously close to failing post-race inspection. The two also finished first and second in the race, respectively, and sat atop the point standings. The cars were then taken back to NASCAR’s R&D Center for further inspection but were not penalized in any way.

Some claim NASCAR was showing leniency to the two title contenders, not wanting the sport’s dominant team, Hendrick Motorsports, to be exposed for cheating during the playoffs.

Others said it was a case of NASCAR picking on Hendrick — after all, why confiscate the cars (every week) and make a fuss when the cars were legal?

The truth is, both opinions hold merit. NASCAR doesn’t want one team stinking up the show. When one does, the sanctioning body has traditionally gone to great lengths to drive home the message that, ‘We’re keeping a close eye on you — and one misstep is all it will take for us to lower the boom.’

At the same time, NASCAR used the situation to send a message to the entire garage area that it will be holding everyone to the new hard-and-fast CoT specs — even when the rules involve thousandths-of-an-inch infractions.

The end result was that Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson, crew chiefs of the two cars, pushed the envelope but did not break any rules. And that’s exactly what championship-caliber crew chiefs are supposed to do.

12. Did the Denny Hamlin vs. Brad Keselowski rivalry-turned-wreckage at Homestead get handled consistently by NASCAR?

Before we begin, let’s make it clear that any ol’-fashioned, blood-boiling rivalry between drivers is good for the sport. The problem here isn’t with Keselowski and Hamlin mixing it up on the racetrack; it’s with NASCAR, whose inconsistent penalties leave us scratching our heads every time.

It all came to a head at Homestead, where after a week of publicly claiming he’d spin Keselowski out, Hamlin followed through during the Nationwide race. After his love tap sent the No. 88 wrecking, NASCAR’s response was to park Hamlin a lap for rough driving.

Over the course of a 200-mile race, that worked out to a slap on the wrist, as the No. 11 car was not only allowed to get its lap back through the Lucky Dog rule but also charged all the way to a fifth-place finish — seven spots better than Keselowski’s 12th.

If that’s the message NASCAR wants to send, fine; but don’t go changing your tune the next day. For when Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart tangled the following day, Montoya got a two-lap penalty for a similar incident. Add in a five-lap penalty for Jason Leffler after turning Steve Wallace back in February, and you can see some ugly inconsistency shaping up here. How can Hamlin’s penalty be less than all the rest, especially when he spent the week telling the world what he’d do? With the sport hoping to run a looser ship next season, they need to set some basic standards so drivers know what to expect once they misbehave. And if you give out a penalty only to give drivers a free pass late in the race, what type of message is that sending?

13. How can the Chase be legit if a driver with the most wins in the regular season (Kyle Busch) isn’t guaranteed a slot?

The question raises a valid argument, but ignores what the point system has been focused on since 1975: consistency.

Even in Formula-1, where wins carry much heavier weight in the system, four wins in 17 races won’t be enough to win the title if there aren’t a bunch of seconds, thirds, fourths, etc., to back them up.

So yes, Kyle had as many wins (four) as anyone else (tied with Mark Martin) by the time the checkers flew at Richmond. But he also struggled through four finishes of 33rd or worse, leaving others with just enough wiggle room to scoot by in an exceptional year for parity in the sport. It’s also notable that the No. 18 never got going during the Chase, scoring only four top-10 finishes in the final 10 races — a total that would have left them seventh, well out of title contention if they had made the cut.

Busch’s “checkers or wreckers” year may have been fun for the fans, but let’s put it this way: If you failed half the projects you started at work every week, do you think you’d find yourself winning Employee of the Month?

Changing the Chase yet again — rewarding the team with the most wins during the regular season with an automatic berth — also allows for the possibility of part-timers to make the playoffs. Back in 1973, David Pearson had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history, winning 11 times in 18 starts. But since he failed to show up a dozen times, Benny Parsons won the season championship based on his performance over all 30.

Winning a title should be a full-time job, not a part-time hobby, and the system’s designed to reward those who bring it each and every week.