Tuesday, April 25, 2017

COMMENTARY: Dale Junior Calls It a Career

It’s official. 

The 2017 season will be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s last a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

The third-generation driver met with team owner Rick Hendrick to inform him of his decision on March 29 of this year, and the team confirmed just moments ago that after 18 seasons and more than 600 career MENCS starts, Earnhardt will step away at the end of the 2017 campaign. Earnhardt has driven for HMS since 2008, collecting nine of his 26 victories with the organization.

One year ago, concussion symptoms forced Earnhardt from the cockpit of his No. 88 Chevrolet for the second time in his career. NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver missed the final 18 races of the season, prompting widespread speculation that he would never return to competition.

“You want it to be on your terms,” said Earnhardt during the lengthy recuperation that followed. “You want to be able to say, ‘Alright, I’ve had enough. I’m done.’ If you get hurt and are forced to quit, that’d be incredibly emotional.”
Earnhardt refused to be carried from the battlefield on his shield last season; vanquished by a foe hidden deep inside his brain. After months of healing and therapy, he returned to competition in February at Daytona International Speedway, climbing back behind the wheel of his familiar, silver-and-blue Chevrolet and running up-front until a mid-race crash spoiled his bid for Victory Lane.
He returned to the sport on his own terms. And now, he will leave it the same way; walking away -- of his own accord -- while ranking as one of the most competitive and popular drivers of his era, or any other.

It is a fitting exit for a man who has given so such to the sport that has framed his existence from the beginning.

His childhood included a superstar father who was habitually absent while fulfilling the obligations of a NASCAR champion, often at the expense of his own children. Many of the photographs of Earnhardt, Jr.’s youth feature him in the background of various Victory Lane ceremonies, home from military school just long enough to stand on the sidelines as his legendary father celebrates with team members, sponsors and a stepmother who -- to this day – did little to include him in her husband’s happiness.

After such a rocky start, the relationship between Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. took many years to repair. And just when it had finally begun to bear fruit, “The Intimidator” was killed on our sport’s grandest stage, leaving his youngest son to shoulder an impossibly heavy burden of expectation that he had neither asked for, nor welcomed.

Despite a pair of championships in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Earnhardt, Jr. has heard his share of criticism over the years.

“He’s not his daddy.”

“He’s not aggressive.”

“He’s not a seven-time champion.”

Admittedly, Earnhardt, Jr. has never won a MENCS championship in his 18-year career. Currently ranked 24th in the championship standings, he is unlikely to do so this season, either. But at this point, who really cares?

When fans look back on Earnhardt’s career, they will certainly remember the wins and losses. But more importantly, they will remember the easygoing style that made him so beloved across NASCAR Nation. Last season, 25% of all NASCAR souvenir sales included Earnhardt’s name, number and/or sponsor. His fan base crosses international, economic and intellectual borders, and NASCAR will be hard-pressed to replace him in that regard.

Equally difficult to replace will be the honesty, humility and sense of humor that have made Earnhardt a Media Center favorite since his earliest days in the sport. No one puts more thought into an answer than Junior, and while he has never been a standard-bearer or spokesman for his fellow drivers, his opinion carries a weight and importance that very few competitors have ever equalled.

Despite his multi-million dollar bank account, Earnhardt remains a man of the people. Like his father before him, Junior resonates with the working man; the guys who build tree houses in their backyards and fill the woods with old junk cars.
Make no mistake about it, however. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not his father. Never has been, never will be.
They share a name and an avocation, but that’s where the similarities end. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is no Intimidator. The “bull in a china shop” style that made his father a cult hero has never been part of Earnhardt the Younger’s racing DNA. With Junior in your rear-view mirror, you are more likely to be outfoxed that outmuscled; a fact that never sat entirely well with the small segment of his fan base that cheered him because of his genetics, rather than his personality.
Earnhardt has always been his own man. A man that we will miss seeing behind the wheel of a 200-mph NASCAR race car.
But let’s be honest. Since his injury at the midpoint of last season, most observers understood that Earnhardt’s driving career would likely be measured in months, rather than years. In many ways, he has raced on borrowed time since then, willfully dodging the high-speed impact that could end his career at any moment. If he is able to do so for another 28 weeks, the third-generation driver will walk away with life and limb intact, able to devote his attention to his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series organization, and – more importantly – to life outside of racing.
Recently married to the former Amy Reimann, Earnhardt spoke in January of last year about the impact marriage has had on his life.
"It's a very cool thing,” he said, “and I am so frustrated with myself that I didn't do it sooner. I didn't know things could be this good. It’s a great feeling to be able to depend on someone and (have) them be accountable and be there."

"Having her in my life has made my life an amazing thing.”

Now, there will be time for Dale and Amy to grow and explore as a couple, perhaps even starting that family he has spoken so glowingly of in the past.

And as for us, we will be just fine, you and I. NASCAR will survive without Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the starting lineup, just as it did 15 years ago with his legendary father.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Atlanta Waves Off Resurfacing Plan For Another Year

After an in-depth review and consultation with NASCAR, Goodyear, race teams and drivers, Atlanta Motor Speedway has elected to postpone its plan to resurface the 20-year-old racing surface until at least after its 2018 NASCAR weekend.

Last paved in 1997, the abrasive AMS surface is known for producing slick and challenging racing conditions, with some of the fastest tire fall-off of any track on the circuit. A number of  drivers voiced concern when plans to resurface the track were announced in January of this year, urging track ownership to delay the project.

AMS will continue a meticulous maintenance program in an effort to maintain the surface and prevent further deterioration. Additionally, patch work on the current asphalt will be completed, where necessary. Track officials will reevaluate its condition following the 2018 triple-header NASCAR weekend and determine whether to undertake a complete resurfacing, with new asphalt to be laid over the current surface.

“We appreciate all of the input we have received from key individuals in the NASCAR industry, as well as our customers,” said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway president. “The overwhelming majority have urged us to hold off on paving so that we can enjoy at least one more weekend of high-speed slipping and sliding in 2018 before the new surface is installed.”

Since it was paved in 1997, the track has hosted 32 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, 20 NASCAR XFINITY Series races, 16 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races, eight ARCA Racing Series races, four IndyCar Series races and countless U.S. Legends and Bandolero car races on its quarter-mile “Thunder Ring.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

COMMENTARY: Rulings Leave Drivers On Uncertain Ground

Less than two weeks ago, NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell appeared to lay down the law in the aftermath of a post-race skirmish between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

O’Donnell, the sport’s chief spokesman in times of strife and upheaval, warning that the sanctioning body would not tolerate any on-track retaliation and would react strongly to instances of drivers using their car as weapons.

Just days later, the sanctioning body failed to act when Austin Dillon did exactly that, squeezing Cole Custer’s car into the outside wall under caution at Phoenix Raceway after Custer inadvertently wrecked Dillon late in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

NASCAR parked Dillon for the remainder of the event – a token penalty, since his car was already too damaged to continue – then declined to assess any further sanctions or penalties.
“Don’t do it again,” was the official response. “Or else.”
That mixed message leaves drivers and fans to wonder exactly what is – and isn’t – allowed these days, especially in the aftermath of a similar no-call for the pit road imbroglio between Busch, Logano and their respective crews a week earlier.  
"Every situation is different" said O’Donnell last week, insisting that drivers know where the line lies between acceptable behavior and actionable offense.

Unfortunately, the drivers say they don’t.

Dillon wrecked Custer under caution
“I don't know that it gives us an answer of what we can or can't do,” said Ryan Newman, Dillon’s teammate at Richard Childress Racing. “You have to do what's best, and what's best is not always the same in everybody's eyes. Being aggressive -- whether it's with your race car or your hands -- doesn't always lead to the answer. But it sometimes gets your point across, and sometimes that's what's needed.”

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also weighed-in on NASCAR’s response, saying, “It's not about trying to teach (Dillon) a lesson. It's really (about) what we are trying to tell everyone else, all the other drivers.
"I know NASCAR takes these guys into the haulers,” he added. “They have conversations with them and tell them what they expect in the future, But no one else is privy to that conversation. That is not sending the message to anyone, because we don't know what the message is.”
NASCAR has fined drivers for fighting in the past. They have also declined to do so.

NASCAR has fined drivers for intentionally damaging competitors’ cars -- under green or under caution – in the past. They have also declined to do so.

O'Donnell: "No two incidents are alike."
It’s all a matter of degree. And in the words of William Shakespeare, “There’s the rub.”
As is often the case, NASCAR finds itself in an untenable position. The sanctioning body is expected to rule consistently on a series of incidents – both on and off the race track – that vary wildly in both severity and circumstance. Fists are different than fenders, and high-speed takeouts are different than harmless bouts of post-race fender rubbing.

No two incidents are alike, and no written rule can cover the myriad ways that drivers express displeasure with each other.

“I don't particularly envy NASCAR's position,” said former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski last week. "There is something to be said for our responsibility in this sport to be role models, and I'm as guilty as anyone else of not doing the best job of that, sometimes.

"We're all trying to ask ourselves… 'What's too much emotion?' I'm not sure anyone has really got a great answer to that.”

Clearly, NASCAR cannot allow its garage area to degenerate into a 700-horsepower version of the OK Corral, with drivers and team members taking matters into their own hands with impunity. They also cannot afford to take the emotion out of the sport, however, turning speedways into Safe Zones where conflict and disagreement are strictly forbidden.

Somewhere in the middle lies a line between acceptable and unacceptable. Unfortunately, that line isn’t always straight.

"I got punched in the face and I still race hard," said Keselowski, harkening back to a 2014 dustup with Jeff Gordon that left him battered, bruised and unpenalized. "Everybody has got their own way of looking at it."
“There is a very fine line" said Dillon with a smile. "I have morals of my own. I try to stick by a moral code that my family brought me up by. Everybody makes mistakes and NASCAR did a good job being a father-like figure to me in this situation. They expected more out of me… (and) I need to handle the situation differently.
“I really don't know what to do,” he smiled. “I haven't gotten my UFC license yet.”

Monday, March 20, 2017

COMMENTARY: Just Four Races In, Busch Faces Critical Juncture

With just four races complete in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Kyle Busch finds himself at a competitive crossroads.

Despite a season-best third-place finish Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, the 2015 series champion finds himself a disappointing 13th in the championship standings, embroiled in the sort of controversy that has sidetracked him more than once in the past.

Two weeks ago, Busch and Joey Logano tangled while battling for fourth place on the final lap at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Busch spun in the final turn, finishing 22nd before confronting Logano after the race, throwing a punch and triggering a wild melee that left him with a bloody cut on his forehead.

Busch vowed revenge immediately after the scuffle, saying of Logano, “He’s going to get it.” 

NASCAR declined to sanction either driver, with Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell saying, “Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are two of the most passionate and competitive drivers in the sport. Both competitors are very clear on our expectations going forward and we will be meeting with them in person prior to practice on Friday in Phoenix.”

Little is known about Friday’s 15-minute meeting. O’Donnell made it clear that the sanctioning body will not look kindly on any further incidents between the two, saying, “If it escalates beyond to something intentional on the race track, we were very clear that we'll react."
Busch and Logano tangled in Las Vegas
Logano, meanwhile, struck a conciliatory tone, saying, “I tried to explain that I made a mistake underneath him. He asked for some data (and) I was able to show him that. It was pretty clear in my opinion what happened, so that's that. I hope he's able to see that and know that I was sincere about it. Time will tell."
Busch chose a different path, taking a page from the playbook of Seattle Seahawk running back Marshawn Lynch, who once filled an entire press conference by answering every question with a terse, “I’m only here so I don’t get fined.”
“Everything’s great,” said a tight-lipped Busch after emerging from the NASCAR hauler Friday. “Looking forward to getting back in my race car and having a fantastic weekend here in Phoenix.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver repeated his "everything's great" five times -- in response to five different questions – before being ushered away by his PR reps, raising the art of sarcasm to a whole new level.
Busch then dominated Sunday’s race in Phoenix, leading a race-high 114 laps and leading the final stage by a comfortable margin until a caution flag with six laps to go – ironically triggered when Logano blew a tire and crashed – led to a pit-road bump with brother Kurt Busch that cost him what appeared to be a sure trip to Victory Lane.

"Everything's great..."
“Everything’s great,” said a clearly unhappy Busch after rallying to finish third. “We got a Top-5 (finish), and that’s what we set out to do today. We should be pumped about that, and how good this Skittles Camry ran.”

He did offer one fleeting moment of candor, saying, “It seems like every finish that’s destined for us seems to end in a worse finish.”

Busch’s unhappiness is understandable. No one climbs happily out of a wrecked race car. No one speaks calmly after being pulled from the depths of an eight-man, pit road Battle Royal. No one celebrates a third-place finish, snatched from the jaws of victory.

Busch’s No. 18 team – and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole – is off to an uncharacteristically slow start to the 2017 campaign. Their 22nd-place showing in Las Vegas followed a 38th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a 16th at Atlanta. Prior to Sunday, the four car JGR stable of Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and rookie Daniel Suarez had managed just one Top-5 finish in 12 combined starts.

By his own admission, Kyle Busch is a lousy loser. Anything less than a checkered flag on race day leaves him crabby and on-edge.

It is simultaneously his worst trait, and his best.

The same “refuse to lose” mentality that has made him a champion has also produced a series of distractions that compromised his championship efforts in the past. Now, Busch must overcome the urge to let his slow start – and his issues with Logano – become a distraction. He must display the maturity and focus that have characterized his last two seasons by refusing to be lured off track, both literally and figuratively.

This week’s race at Auto Club Speedway offers Busch a tailor-made opportunity to refocus and reload. He recorded four consecutive podium finishes at the Fontana oval from 2011 to 2014, winning in both 2013 and 2014.

The next few weeks will prove whether the “kinder, gentler” Busch can keep his eye on the prize, instead of being swept onto the same emotional rocks that have sunk his ship so many times in the past.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Harvick To Host New Show On SiriusXM

SiriusXM announced today that 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Series Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing and one of the sport’s most popular drivers, will host a new exclusive show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, available to listeners nationwide on satellite radios and the SiriusXM app.

Happy Hours will debut on March 28 and air every Tuesday from 7:00 to 9:00 pm ET, featuring Harvick’s distinctive perspective on the sport and life outside the track.  Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum will take calls from listeners and give NASCAR fans a unique view on the driver’s life and interests when he is away from the race car.  In late May, the show will begin airing every other week.

“I’m excited to partner up with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and give the fans an inside look at what it’s like to be a NASCAR driver in today’s age,” said Kevin Harvick. “It will be fun to give the listeners my opinion on things that are happening within our sport.”

“Kevin is one of the most exciting drivers on the track, and an extremely fun-loving person off the track,” said Steve Cohen, SiriusXM’s SVP of Sports Programming.  “That combination of competitiveness and personality is perfect for SiriusXM.  Kevin and Matt will create a show that is enlightening, entertaining and unlike anything else on the airwaves.”

Harvick has 35 career NASCAR Cup Series victories, including wins in such crown-jewel events as the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. In addition to his impressive performance in NASCAR’s Cup series, Harvick is a two-time Xfinity Series championship with 46 Xfinity Series wins and 14 Truck Series victories. 

SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90) airs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and delivers in-depth racing coverage and inside access to NASCAR news, including live broadcasts of every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series™, NASCAR XFINITY Series™ and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series™ event.

Fans can call in to the channel to share their opinions and be a part of the daily discussion, and can also access SiriusXM NASCAR Radio programming when they want it on SiriusXM On Demand.  The channel’s roster of expert hosts features current and former drivers, crew chiefs, crew members and a host of NASCAR insiders.  For more info on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s programming and personalities go to www.SiriusXM.com/NASCAR.

Childers On Manufacturer Change: "We Expected To Do Well"

Kevin Harvick is off to a solid start to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, and with a stop scheduled at his favorite track – Phoenix International Raceway – this weekend, crew chief Rodney Childers says he is not surprised by his organization’s fast start to the 2017 campaign, or its rapid adaptation to an offseason change to Ford power.

“I think we all expected to do well,” said Childers, whose driver has gone to Victory Lane in six of the last nine MENCS races at Phoenix. “We worked really hard over the winter and all of our preparation has been really good, but the biggest thing is just keeping that going over time. Our group has done a good job of that the last three years, but we just have to keep it up.  Hopefully, we can keep doing that as the year progresses.”

Coming off a hard-luck, 38th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend that saw driver Kevin Harvick cut a tire and slam the wall in the early going, Childers said he is happy to be returning to Phoenix International Raceway, where the team tested earlier this season and has had tremendous success in the past.

“We’ve had a good setup there that last three years, but the test didn’t start out the way we wanted,” he said. “We struggled the first day and about half the second day, then we got going really good at the end of the second day.  We learned a lot out there and look forward to going back and hopefully having another shot at the victory.”

Childers said he and Harvick focus on PIR’s tricky third and fourth turns, adding, “that’s where we seem to excel... getting through three and four and rolling through the center of the corner. That’s what we struggled with out there at the test, just trying to keep the back of the car under him (while having) the front end of the car turn. I think we got it a lot better toward the end of the test and, hopefully, we can be even better when we go back.”

While Harvick has had success in accumulating bonus points under NASCAR’s new stage-based race format, Childers insisted, “We don’t worry about that side of it.  We just try to be as fast as we can and lead as many laps as we can. That has paid off for us in the past. Hopefully, we can keep that up as the year goes on.”

Childers also spoke about the difference between last year’s Chevrolets and this season’s Fords, saying, “It definitely feels like the Ford body has more front bias balance than what we were used to. That’s just something you’ve got to figure out with a few tests and racing it a little bit. It’s just a change. It’s not something that’s going to hurt one way or another, you just have to adapt to it like we adapt to changing tires each week. Overall, it’s been good and we really haven’t had any issues with it.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Needs A "Third Man In" Rule

The final lap of Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway showcased the best and the worst that NASCAR has to offer.

A dramatic last-lap pass sent Martin Truex, Jr. to Victory Lane, making him the first driver ever to sweep all three stages of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. A final-lap skirmish between perennial title contenders Kyle Busch and Joey Logano sent Busch spinning down pit road, triggering a post-race melee that left Busch with a bloodied face and bruised feelings, promising payback somewhere down the road.

Busch and Logano banged fenders as they approached the limping car of Brad Keselowski, who had surrendered the lead to Truex just moments before when something went amiss in the suspension of his Team Penske Ford. Busch forced Logano low to avoid Keselowski, and as the pair entered the final turn, Logano appeared to lose control and skate up the track into Busch.

Busch’s No. 18 Toyota spun down pit road, eventually crossing the line in 22nd place. Busch extricated himself from his wrecked machine and stalked angrily toward Logano, throwing at least one punch before being swarmed by Team Penske crewmembers. A brief pig pile ensued, before NASCAR officials were able to separate the combatants. Busch emerged with a bloody cut over his right eye, and was treated and released at the track’s Infield Care Center.

Asked if any punches were landed, Logano quipped, "Not on me. There wasn’t much talking, (but) there was a lot of swinging. (Usually) you just talk about it, but he wasn’t in a talking mood. He was in a fighting mood and I don’t back away from conflict.”

He also offered his take on the final-lap tangle, saying, “I was racing hard there at the end. He tried to take me down into the corner underneath Brad (and) about crashed on entry. I was still trying to gather it up by the center, and I was going to spin out. I'm trying to chase it up (the race track) and he was there.

"It was nothing intentional, but obviously, he thinks that,” said Logano. “I understand his frustration. He crashed. The same thing could have happened into (Turn 3) with what he did to me. Kyle and I usually race well together and don't have any issues. We'll move on.”

Not surprisingly, Busch had a polar-opposite view, saying simply, "I got dumped. (Logano) flat-out just drove straight in the corner and wrecked me. That's how Joey races.”

Busch also promised revenge, saying, “He's going to get it."

Neither Busch nor Logano are built for brawling. Neither man tips the scales at more than 140 pounds, and while the bantamweight tandem might be equally matched in a man-to-man scuffle, the addition of a half-dozen heavyweight crewmembers ensures a one-sided beat down like the one seen in Sin City Sunday.

And that is where NASCAR needs to step in, authoring an NHL-style “third man in” rule to prevent personal animosity from turning into a Jets vs. Sharks rumble, straight out of West Side Story.

While it’s understandable for crewmen to “have their driver’s back” in times of trouble, situations like Sundays often end up pitting a single combatant against a larger number of adversaries. The results are predictable, as Busch’s bloodied forehead will attest.

Fisticuffs aren’t common in NASCAR. Like bench-clearing brawls in baseball, they are the exception, rather than the rule. Unfortunately, video footage of the latest NASCAR imbroglio ran on all the network morning shows Monday; shows that had no problem omitting all mention of race winner Martin Truex, Jr., or the last-lap pass that sent him to Victory Lane.

Perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to take crewmembers out of the mix, levying suspensions and hefty monetary fines on anyone who wades into a driver-on-driver dustup.

In most instances, the lack of backup may prompt angry drivers to talk it out, rather than slug it out. And if fisticuffs do ensue, at least it’ll be a fair fight, allowing the wheelmen to settle their own scores.

Will Busch follow through on his promise to exact revenge? Only time will tell. Any comment made by an angry driver -- mere moments after climbing from the seat of a demolished race car – should be taken with at least a grain of salt.

Perhaps Busch will cool his jets in the next few days, arriving at Phoenix International Raceway with a calmer, “let it go” point of view.

If he doesn’t, however, it’s only a matter of time before another donnybrook breaks out. And NASCAR needs to be prepared.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

AmeriCarna Returns This Thursday

Velocity’s AMERICARNA returns to the network for a fourth season on Thursday, March 9 with NASCAR champion crew chief Ray Evernham guiding viewers through a series of remarkable stories from the automotive world. From Mario Andretti’s legendary 1965 Brawner Hawk IndyCar to the 1958 Chevy from the iconic movie American Graffiti, Evernham unveils the fascinating details behind the most notable cars in American history. Ray also helps his friend Dale Earnhardt, Jr. restore an El Camino to become racecar-performance worthy.

AMERICARNA kicks off with a special, one-hour story of the car that ignited Mario Andretti’s illustrious IndyCar career; the Brawner Hawk from the Dean Van Lines racing team. Ray works closely with hall of fame mechanic Jim McGee to fully restore the renowned vehicle back to its historic original form. Ray and Jim then take the 1965 racecar to the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, where Andretti, who won the 1969 Indy 500, gets behind the wheel and races down memory lane.

AMERICARNA will also follow Evernham as he finally fulfills his childhood dream of owning the American Graffiti 1958 Chevy Impala.  After the car went up for auction, Ray prepares to restore the Chevy to its classic big-screen look. Ray and his team work painstakingly on this restoration, reviewing every scene from George Lucas’ 1973 film and cataloguing every detail to make sure they get it right.  Viewers can catch all the action on the brand-new season of AMERICARNA, premiering Thursday, March 9 at 9pm ET/PT on Velocity.

Upcoming AMERICARNA episodes include:

“The Machine, The Magic and Mario”
Thursday, March 9 at 9 pm [1-hour Special]
Ray uncovers the infamous “Brawner Hawk” – from the Dean Van Lines team – that became the breakout car in the career of Mario Andretti. Ray enlists HOF mechanic Jim McGee to restore the vehicle and, along the way, discovers a replica with many of the car’s original parts. After an award-winning stop at Amelia Island Concours, the car heads to the 100th running of Indy 500 where Mario Andretti himself gets behind the wheel.

“Two Juniors and the El Laguna”
Thursday, March 16 at 9 pm
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wants Ray to help restore an El Camino, except add on a Laguna front end. It’s not a typical restoration, but it’s certainly a NASCAR performance-worthy restoration. Ray and the team build the car and then, in a bit of gamesmanship, challenge Kyle Tucker, owner of Detroit Speed, to a series of races against his award-winning Camaro. But as always, Ray has an ace up his sleeve in Al Unser, Jr. as his driver.

“Vintage Racing Takes an Awesome Turn”
Thursday, March 23 at 9 pm
In the late 60s, Camaros, Mustangs, and Corvettes roared to the forefront of the muscle car world. When Ray gets offered a spot in a vintage race featuring these cars, he’s propelled to dive into their history and afforded a chance to get behind the wheel at the Brickyard. But because it is a pro-am race, Ray pulls in a partner – none other than Bill Elliott, aka “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”

“Hollywood Makeover”
Thursday, March 30 at 9 pm

Everyone has a car they fell in love with. Maybe it was the first? Maybe it was the hot rod the guy down the street owned? In Ray’s case, it was the ’58 Chevy he saw in the iconic coming of age car movie, American Graffiti. When Ray gets the chance to own the car after years and years of pursuit, he jumps on it. But restoring the car to its "movie state" proves to be a grueling task that goes way beyond a typical build. But when it's you first love, you can't let her down.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Las Vegas Set To Double-Down On NASCAR

Las Vegas Motor Speedway appears to be in line to host two races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2018, for the first time.

According to an article in last Friday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board of directors held a special meeting last week “to consider a seven-year $2.5 million annual sponsorship agreement with NASCAR that would include the addition of a fall race at the speedway.”

Las Vegas currently hosts the third race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season; this weekend’s Kobalt 400. The agreement -- reportedly a seven-year, $17.5 million pact with an additional three-year option – includes $1 million in per-event sponsorship, along with an additional $500,000 annual marketing budget for “two NASCAR first-tier sanctioned races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway every year during the term of this agreement.”

The Convention and Visitors Authority issued a written statement, saying, “Until the board votes on the proposal, it’s premature for us to comment on it. We have a great relationship with Las Vegas Motor Speedway and NASCAR and we look forward to continuing the partnership.”

According to working materials provided to the board, last year's Las Vegas race attracted 96,400 out-of-town visitors and contributed $139.2 million to the local economy. Based on those numbers, the Convention and Visitors Authority appears ready to pay for a second event.

A media release from Las Vegas Motor Speedway was fairly non-committal, saying, “When there is more information to provide, we will do so.”

NASCAR Senior Vice President for Racing Operations Jim Cassidy said, "We are constantly working with promoters to discuss and develop NASCAR schedules. We have not finalized any schedules for 2018 or beyond, but will announce them as they become final."

SMI's Marcus Smith
Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Marcus Smith said Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway that “We’ve always said we’d entertain a second date at Las Vegas.” He declined, however, to discuss where that race might come from, unleashing a firestorm of speculation in the NASCAR garage.
Sources say it is unlikely that NASCAR will add a 37th point-counting event to its already overstuffed premier-series schedule, meaning that another venue will need to relinquish an event. NASCAR has long allowed track owners to relocate events within their ownership portfolio, making it likely – though not cast in stone – that the second Las Vegas race would come from an existing SMI track; Charlotte, New Hampshire, Atlanta, Sonoma, Bristol, Kentucky or Texas Motor Speedway.
Atlanta, Sonoma and Kentucky host single races each season, leaving Charlotte, New Hampshire and Texas – all of whom currently host second events in the fall -- most likely to face the chopping block.
When former Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO Bruton Smith acquired New Hampshire International Speedway from founder Bob Bahre in 2007, he made no secret of his plans to transfer one of its MENCS events to Las Vegas. He changed those plans after witnessing the support northeast race fans have traditionally shown for “The Magic Mile,” but last week’s report has raised anxiety levels in the Granite State once again.
Northeast race fans aren’t the only ones unhappy with the reports.
Former series champion Kevin Harvick – an outspoken proponent of running only one race per season at each venue – said that while he enjoys racing at LVMS, the prospect of two races at the desert oval concerns him.
"I love Vegas and I think it’s a great atmosphere," said the Stewart Haas Racing driver. "I think it would be good. But sometimes you turn one great (race) into two mediocre ones. That’s something you have to consider and has to be evaluated.”
He cited the example of Auto Club Speedway, which struggled to attract crowds for many years, until cutting back to a single race each season.
“When we had one race, it was great,” he said. “When we had two, it wasn’t so great. You have to be careful of not doing that.”

Monday, February 27, 2017

COMMENTARY: For Daytona 500 Champion Busch, A Resurrection Complete

What a difference two years makes.

Just 24 months ago, Kurt Busch was an unwilling spectator at the 2015 Daytona 500, suspended by NASCAR for the first two races of the season while charges of domestic abuse leveled by former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll were investigated.

Yesterday, Busch stood in Victory Lane at the World Center of Racing, celebrating a win in stock car racing’s greatest event, along with a personal resurrection that seemed all-but-impossible not so long ago.

In 2015, Busch was NASCAR’s resident bad actor, a troubled soul whose repeated clashes with fans, media and even his own teammates often overshadowed his unquestionable talent behind the wheel. Today, the Las Vegas native bears little resemblance to his former self; newly married to a woman he calls “the love of my life” and seemingly content at last with both his job and his life off the race track.

Haas (L) and Gibson played major roles.
There are plenty of people to thank for that transformation.

Team owner Gene Haas scooped Busch off NASCAR’s scrap heap in 2014, after watching the former series champion lift Furniture Row Racing to the ranks of contenders the prior season. Haas hired Busch without consulting partner Tony Stewart, who was convalescing from a badly broken leg suffered in a Sprint Car crash.

“I wanted to go forward with (Busch),” said Haas at the time. “I did this on my own (and) probably overstepped my authority a tick. I realized that Tony might be a little bit upset about it, and he was.”

The move caused a rift within the organization that took some time to heal. But on the race track, it paid almost immediate dividends. After a middling 2014 campaign with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost – 11th in points with a win and six Top-10 finishes in 36 starts – Busch was paired with veteran Tony Gibson for the 2015 campaign.

Gibson’s ready smile and easygoing manner mask a no-nonsense attitude that is exactly what the mercurial Busch needed. “Old Man” laid down the law early in his tenure, putting a stop to the on-track tirades that had poisoned Busch’s previous teams so often in the past. With Gibson’s guidance, Busch turned his biggest liability into a strength, harnessing his competitive fire and focusing it on the race track, rather than his teammates.

"There's a bond we share with Kurt that a lot of drivers don't have with their teams," said Gibson recently. ”He is so involved in the changes that we do. He's in the loop 100%. We don't do anything unless we discuss it with him.

"I applaud him for his dedication. He is involved. He is engaged. And that is what got us where we're at today.”

Van Metre and Busch were married
earlier this year.
The final cog in Busch’s resurrection has been his wife, the former Ashley Van Metre. A professional polo player and model, Van Metre instantly understood and accepted Busch’s demanding lifestyle, providing a degree of grounding and acceptance that he lacked in the past.

“My mood is better when Ashley is at the track,” said Busch in a recent New York Times interview. “My antics over the years are well documented. My age has helped me change, (but) Ashley has committed so much time to me and to our relationship. Her dad has quizzed me on being mature and wise. Those talks have been so beneficial. They even brought me closer to my own father.”
Busch’s mother, Gaye, also gives Van Metre a full measure of credit for her son’s emotional turnaround.
“Kurt’s career is stressful and if he has a bad day, Ashley understands and makes him feel better,” she said. “When he sees her, he gets giddy. He lights up. It makes me so happy… that I cry.”
There were more than a few tears in yesterday’s jubilant Victory Lane. Tears for a man and a race team that have come of age together; finding solid ground, both on and off the race track.

TNS / Stephen M. Dowell

It took 16 years for Kurt Busch to earn the title of Daytona 500 champion. He finished second on three different occasions, chasing Michael Waltrip (2003), Jeff Gordon (2005) and then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman (2008) to the stripe in NASCAR’s most coveted event.
In marked contrast to prior seasons, when minor glitches often triggered volcanic outbursts of negative emotion, Busch remained calm Sunday, despite an early pit road speeding penalty that forced him to restart at the rear of the field, a crash that damaged the nose of his Ford Fusion and a faulty rear-view mirror that dislodged in the race’s final stage.
"My rearview mirror fell off with 30 to go,” said Busch in Victory Lane. ““I thought about how Ashley would have handled that… what she would do. The more I run this race, the more I've learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip. I knew I had to drive defensively. I couldn't even see the cars behind me. I just heard my spotter in my ear.” 
"I told Kurt it was probably the most patient, best race he’s ever run,” said Stewart, a 17-time Daytona 500 competitor who never managed to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy. “He’s very deserving of this win.”
For NASCAR’s former bad boy, now thoroughly soaked with champagne in a raucous Daytona Victory Lane, 2015 may as well have been a thousand years ago.