Wednesday, October 31, 2007

COMMENTARY: Nationwide Series Proposals Present A Mixed Bag

NASCAR officials have begun shopping around a number of potential changes to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, in an effort to give the sanctioning body's #2 circuit a look and personality of its own.

Since abandoning its ill-fated experiment with V6 power decades ago, the Nationwide Series has been little more than "Nextel Cup Lite." The cars look and sound the same as Nextel Cup cars; with only a slight difference in wheelbase and engine displacement. The average fan cannot possibly distinguish between the two, making Saturday's support division race all-too-similar to Sunday's main event.

NASCAR is now floating at least two trial balloons. First, the sanctioning body is asking teams for feedback on converting the Nationwide Series to “Pony Car” specs in 2009; running Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Toyota Solara bodies. The idea is a good one. Most teams re-skin their cars during the offseason anyway, and as one team owner told us recently, "It doesn't cost any more to hang Mustang sheetmetal than it does to hang a Fusion. It's all steel."

A pony car-based Nationwide Series would be unique in appearance, and easily distinguishable from the splitter-and-wing equipped Nextel Cup machinery. It's a simple solution to a complex problem, and in my opinion, should be implemented as quickly as humanly possible.

Unfortunately, NASCAR's second trial balloon is not nearly as well conceived.

The sanctioning body is currently considering a system that would prevent Sprint Cup drivers from earning championship points on the Nationwide Series. Under the proposed new system, any driver ranked in the top 35 in Sprint Cup points would not be eligible for championship points on the #2 circuit, setting up a scenario that could easily lead to a paper champion at season's end.

If NASCAR's proposed two-tier system were in place today, David Reutimann would be leading the Busch Series points, despite accumulating 531 fewer ACTUAL points than Nextel Cup regular Carl Edwards. In 32 starts this season, Edwards has four wins to Reutimann's one. He has 14 top-five finishes to Reutimann's five, and 19 top-10s to Reutimann's 12. David Reutimann is a nice guy and a great racer, but based on those statistics, can anyone truly argue that he deserves to be crowned 2007 NASCAR Busch Series champion?

Obviously not.

Race fans aren't stupid. They know who the dominant drivers are, and they will not be fooled into accepting a champion whose season was second or third-best overall.

Stock car racing is not like golf. Nobody gets a handicap, and no one is allowed to hit from the ladies' tees. It's not like sports car racing, where every race includes three or four winners; all crowned "Best In Class." In stock car racing, you strap on your helmet and go, competing against 42 other drivers for the right to stand alone in Victory Lane. There are no asterisks, and no two-tiered point system designed to appease the politically correct by making things "fair" for everyone.

NASCAR has a difficult decision to make in the next few months. Either ban the Sprint Cup regulars from the Nationwide Series outright -- thereby losing the vast majority of the circuit's drawing power -- or allow them to stay and race under the same points structure as everyone else. The proposed two-tier point system is competitively dishonest, and violates the basic tenets of competition upon which NASCAR was founded.

NASCAR's Ramsey Poston said this week that none of the sanctioning body's ideas are cast in stone. "All we've done at this point is ask the teams how they would feel about various changes," he said. "Nothing has been decided. It's all very preliminary."

Let's hope the sanctioning body is able to separate the good ideas from the bad.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Wyler, South Point Racing Merge; Gaughan To Run Trucks and Cup In 2008.

Team owners Jeff Wyler and Michael Gaughan have announced the formation of Wyler-Gaughan Racing, LLC, which will field two full-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series teams and a part-time Sprint Cup Series entry next season.

WGR will field the No. 77 Toyota Tundra with driver Brendan Gaughan on the Craftsman Truck Series, and the No. 60 Toyota for a yet-unnamed driver. Gaughan will also steer a WGR Toyota Camry in at least six NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 2008.

The moves marks Gaughan’s second manufacturer change in as many years. The Las Vegas native moved from Dodge to Chevrolet following the 2006 season, and currently ranks 13th in series points following an eighth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway Saturday. Former Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague currently drives the Wyler Racing ConWay Freight #60, but as Sirius Speedway first reported more than a week ago, Sprague is reportedly headed to Kevin Harvick, Inc. next season as a new teammate for Ron Hornaday, Jr. A spokesman for KHI denied knowledge of that deal last week.

Wyler said of the new pact, “We have watched with great interest the recent partnerships that have formed in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup garage, and we believe that this is the wave of the future. To have a competitive team at any level in NASCAR, it is crucial to have an almost endless supply of resources available. By combining our efforts, we now have double the talent, and double the resources. We believe we will be one step ahead when we make our move into the Sprint Cup Series in the coming years.”

“My intention has always been to own a NASCAR Sprint Cup team for my son,” said Michael Gaughan. “After examining various options, we decided that partnering with Jeff Wyler and his team would be the best way of working toward that goal.”

Between them, Wyler and Gaughan have a total of 12 NCTS victories.

Tom Buzze has been appointed as General Manager of the new team, which will be located in the Charlotte area.

HOW SWEEP IT IS!! Sox Sweep Rocks To Win The World Series!

The Boston Red Sox clinched their second World Series title in four years last night with a nail-biting, 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies in Game Four of the 2007 Series. Mike Lowell was named MVP of the Series, after hitting a solo home run, a double and scoring twice in the final game. He hit .400 (6-for-15) in the World Series, with four RBIs, three walks and a team-high six runs scored.

Late in last night's game, Alex Rodriguez once again displayed his complete and total lack of class by announcing that he will opt for the big paycheck (yet again) by becoming a free agent, declining to re-sign with the much-despised New York Yankees.

What a WONDERFUL time to be a member of Red Sox Nation!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hmiel To Ganassi, NASCAR Downplays Nationwide COT Rumors

It didn’t take long for Steve Hmiel to find a new job. Just days after announcing his departure from Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Hmiel was introduced today as Competition Manager for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

Team owner Chip Ganassi made the announcement earlier today, saying, “When good (drivers) become available, you owe it to your organization to make a run at them. The same is true for leaders. Steve became available and I got him. I couldn’t be happier.”

Hmiel will join John Fernandez in the ranks of upper management at Ganassi, handling competition management and preparation of the race cars, while Fernandez oversees the long-term strategic direction of the team.

Nationwide To COT? -- Recent comments by former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Todd Bodine have raised questions about the future of the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

Asked about his plans for 2008 recently, Bodine said his Germain Racing team had hoped to run at least a limited schedule of races on the Nationwide Series next season, but changed their plans after learning that NASCAR planned to convert the Series to a Car Of Tomorrow-style setup in 2009.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston moved to quell that speculation today, telling Sirius NASCAR Radio’s Sirius Speedway that while the sanctioning body is looking at options to use the COT chassis in the Nationwide Series, they are “not quite there yet.” Poston said NASCAR is determined to find ways to distinguish the two series’ from each other, making it unlikely that the Nationwide Series will feature the rear wing now used in Cup competition.

Rumors continue to circulate that NASCAR will convert the Nationwide Series to a so-called “Pony Car” class in 2009, utilizing Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and (possibly) Toyota Solara sheetmetal, in an effort to give the circuit a new and unique identity.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Stremme Tabbed For RWI Nationwide Ride

Expect an announcement Sunday in Atlanta that David Stremme will run a 20-race schedule of NASCAR Nationwide Series races next season for Rusty Wallace, Inc.

Sources close to the team tell Sirius Speedway that Stremme will split the schedule with youngster Chase Austin, running all the companion events with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Stremme is still rumored to be in the running for the handful of rides still open on the Cup side for 2008, as well. RWI will continue to field a Nationwide Series Dodge for driver Steven Wallace, with both cars sponsored by Homelife Communities.

Robby On Junior: Robby Gordon says he is not surprised by the engine problems suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season. A year ago, Gordon purchased engines from Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and lost five powerplants in the final six races after announcing that he would move to Ford in 2007.

Gordon said of Earnhardt’s current trouble, "It doesn't surprise me a bit. I've been there. I don't think they're giving him bad engines, but I do think they're probably giving him some experimental engines. He's probably getting some R&D stuff."

Political Ankle-Grabbing Escalates Again: There is apparently no limit to how far Cabarrus County officials will go to kiss-up to Lowe's Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith.

Three weeks ago, the Concord (NC) City Council and Zoning Board angered Smith by refusing to approve his planned new drag strip on the grounds of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Smith then threatened to shut down the entire speedway complex and move it to another town, and since then, it’s been one giant butt-smooching orgy as city, county and regional officials scramble to appease the multimillionaire speedway owner.

They immediately reversed course on the dragstrip, unanimously approving the project they had opposed just days before. Efforts are now underway to secure a multi-million dollar tax incentive package to help build the dragstrip, and yesterday, both City and County Councils voted unanimously to ask the state to change the name of Speedway Boulevard to Bruton Smith Boulevard.

Tourism officials spent nearly 90 minutes schmoozing Smith last night, headlined by a videotape featuring area hotel chambermaids and restaurant workers thanking him for creating jobs in the area.

Concord Mayor J. Scott Padgett said of the move, "I think it's past time we did this. He was a pioneer in motorsports, and we haven't named anything for him. I guess…you sort of take for granted what you've got."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Mayfeld Jumps To Haas CNC Racing

Jeff Green is out, and Jeremy Mayfield is in at Haas CNC Racing, effective immediately.

Haas CNC General Manager Joe Custer said today that Mayfield will replace Green in the #66 Chevrolet this weekend, and will join Scott Riggs as part of a two-car lineup in 2008. That would appear to indicate that Johnny Sauter will not return to the team either. Custer confirmed that Sauter is under contract with the team through 2008, but that "we're working through that."

Mayfield’s replacement in the #36 Bill Davis Racing Toyota has not been announced, but a spokesperson for BDR told me late this afternoon that the car will run this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a soon-to-be announced driver. That driver will not be Jacques Villeneuve.

Petty Enterprises To Ford? -- The hot rumor in the Nextel Cup garage this weekend concerned a possible move by Petty Enterprises to the Ford camp in time for the 2008 season.

Petty Enterprises has a longtime affiliation with Dodge, and has recently been in discussions about a possible merger with Gillett-Evernham Racing. Kyle Petty told Sirius Speedway last week that those negotiations are on the back burner for now, while other options are being explored. Talk in the garage this weekend had one of those options involving a jump to the Ford camp.

A spokesman for the team strongly denied that report today, saying that Petty Enterprises has four years remaining on its current deal with Dodge, and will honor their commitment. The team did say that they are trying to put together a deal to run Chad McCumbee on the 2008 Nationwide Series, but that the deal is in no way linked to a manufacturer change. Sources say McCumbee would land in the Carl Haas-owned #14 Fords currently driven by Kyle Krisiloff.

Sprague To KHI? -- The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series garage was buzzing with a hot rumor of its own this weekend, with speculation that there could be a new superteam in the works.

Unconfirmed reports said that former series champion Jack Sprague will leave the Jeff Wyler Racing #60 team at season’s end to join fellow series champion Ron Hornaday, Jr., in a two-truck effort at Kevin Harvick, Inc. I contacted KHI earlier today, and a spokesman there said they have no knowledge of any such deal.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Commentary: Bruton Smith Knows How To Play The P.R. Game

The Concord (NC) Planning and Zoning Commission made like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” last night, reversing its previous stance and unanimously approving plans for a $60 million dragstrip near Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The vote came as the city scrambles to head off a threatened shutdown of the entire LMS complex by owner Bruton Smith.

Just over two weeks ago, the Commission honored a City Council request to ban drag racing as a permitted use on the property, citing noise concerns raised by a handful of neighbors. Smith then vowed to bulldoze Lowe’s Motor Speedway and build a new speedway complex outside Concord, a move that would cost the city millions of dollars in tax and tourist revenue.

The City Council abruptly reversed its stance last week, calling on the Planning and Zoning Commission to approve drag racing, a request the Commission honored after only 13 minutes of discussion. Prior to last night’s vote, Smith said there is a 90-percent chance that he will bulldoze LMS and sell the property piecemeal. He has promised to delay a final decision until after the City Council revisits the issue (read: caves in) on October 26.

Smith is NASCAR's preeminent promoter/showman, and the timing of the dispute -- coinciding with the track's just completed Bank Of America 500 weekend -- struck virtually no one as coincidental. Smith's threat to bulldoze Lowe's Motor Speedway is debatable in its sincerity, but indisputable in its effect. The controversy put Bruton and his track on the front page of virtually every sporting publication in the land, and likely sold a few thousand tickets along the way, as well.

Could the dispute have been avoided? Absolutely.

Smith owns other dragstrips around the country, many of which feature state-of-the-art noise abatement technology. LMS' neighbors could have been reassured by this knowledge, had the information been made available. In addition, questions about the proposed dragstrip's schedule could have been asked (and answered) in a matter of minutes, putting fears of four and five-night-per-week competition to rest. Instead, both sides chose to shoot from the lip; blustering, threatening and lobbing firebombs at each other, instead of working together in their mutual best interest.

In the end, I have no doubt that this will all work out handsomely for Bruton Smith and Lowe's Motor Speedway. Concord's City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission have been sent packing with their collective tails between their legs, and every politician within earshot is suddenly championing a series of tax breaks to make the drag strip even more profitable.

Nicely done, Mr. Smith.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

You Ask, We Deliver!

In response to a listener query from earlier this week, here's a photo of Al Keller, posing with his winning Jaguar at New Jersey's Linden Airport. NASCAR's first road-course event was staged over two miles of airport runways there on June 13, 1954. The event was open to American-made and ­foreign cars, and nearly half of the entries in the 43-car field were, in fact, foreign-made. It remains the only win for a foreign-made automobile in NASCAR's top series. Thanks to listener John Wills for forwarding the photo.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ray Evernham's "Racing For A Reason" Custom Car and Bike Show

Check out some of the sights from Ray Evernham's "Racing For A Reason" Custom Car and Bike Show, featuring the personal rides of many top NASCAR stars. The show continues tonight (Thursday) at Cabarrus Arena in Concord, NC. It's a great time, for a great cause, and we heartily encourage everyone to check it out. Tell `em "The Godfather" sent you!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Awwww, That's Too Bad!

The Evil Empire has been ousted in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, after a season-ending, 6-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians last night. Highlights of the game included Alex "Mr. July" Rodriguez' first RBI of the postseason (his first playoff RBI since 2004) in the late innings of the game. Highlights of the series included Roger "The $4.5 Million Per Month Man" Clemens getting shelled early in Game Three, before leaving the game with a "tight hamstring."

Is it any wonder Joe Torre has a headache?

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox are resting happily after completing a three-game sweep of the LA Angels of Anaheim earlier this week. The ALCS begins Friday night at Fenway Park in Boston.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fifteen Things I'm Quickly Beginning To Dislike...

1. Concession stand burgers so old that the bun is welded to the meat.

2. Parents who think their 12-year old is the next Jeff Gordon. There’s only one Super-G, and even HIS parents took him racing for the right reason; because it was something the family could do together.

3. Those who believe a Toyota at Talladega represents the biggest threat to national security since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

4. Rain at the racetrack.

5. "I’m a big (insert name of driver here) fan, and I think…"

6. People who think they're entitled to something, but don't care to work for it.

7. Fair-weather fans. I’ve suffered with the Boston Red Sox for 45 of my 46 years, and never thought about changing my allegiance. And you want to dump Dale Jr., because he changed numbers? Sheesh…

8. People who “hate” Teresa Earnhardt without ever having “met” Teresa Earnhardt. Then again, it’s probably easier to detest someone you know absolutely nothing about.

9. Seeing guys like Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek and Kenny Schrader slowly get squeezed out of the sport. I understand it, but I still don’t like it.

10. People who expect every race to be the best race EVER.

11. Lapped drivers who think their battle for 37th place trumps everything else going on behind them. It doesn’t.

12. People taking their shirts off who probably shouldn't.

13. "Car Of Tomorrows." Not the car, the term.

14. People who show up early to lay a blanket over 15 seats at their local short track, then come back with only four friends.

15. Closed minded fans slamming Open Wheel drivers.

Nationwide Announcement Today On Sirius Speedway; M&Ms To Back Busch In 2008

Nationwide Insurance is set to be announced as the new sponsor of NASCAR's #2 series later today.

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and Nationwide Insurance CMO James Lyski will announce the multi-year series sponsorship agreement at a press conference set for today at 3 pm ET. Sirius Speedway will carry that announcement live.

Nationwide replacs Anheuser-Busch's Busch beer brand, which has served as title sponsor of the series for the last 26 years. The new deal is reported to be worth $10 million per year for the next seven years. That is approximately the same amount paid by Anheuser-Busch this season, and considerably less than the $25-30 million NASCAR had hoped to attract.

Nationwide is currently involved with the six Speedway Motorsports Inc.-owned tracks, and recently inked a deal to build interactive fan zones at some SMI facilities. The insurance giant is expected to sign a similar deal with International Speedway Corporatioon for some or all of its tracks.

In other sponsorship news, Mars U.S. announced today that M&M's will sponsor the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and driver Kyle Busch for the next three years. Snickers and Pedigree will also serve as primary sponsors in several races next season, with associate backing from Combos, Twix, Skittles, Starburst and Milky Way. Interstate Batteries will remain with the team, serving as primary sponsor for six races.

It's Official: Franchitti To Cup In 2008

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates made it official this morning, announcing that reigning Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series Champion Dario Franchitti has signed a multi-year deal to drive Ganassi’s No. 40 Dodge Avenger in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, beginning next season. He will team with Juan Pablo Montoya and Reed Sorenson in the three-car Ganassi stable, running for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year title, as well as competing in a number of NASCAR Busch (soon to be Nationwide) Series races.

“Any time you can sign a driver of Dario’s caliber you have to be thrilled,” said Ganassi. “Dario is a world-class driver. He is a proven winner, an Indianapolis 500 champion and an accomplished individual that will be a super teammate to both Juan Pablo and Reed.”

“I have always admired Chip’s teams -- having competed against them over the years -- and recently paid particular attention to Juan’s successful transition this season,” said Franchitti. “This is a great opportunity to join one of NASCAR’s premier teams.”

Franchitti will begin his acclimation to stock cars almost immediately, attempting to qualify a Ganassi-owned No.42 Target Dodge in Friday’s ARCA race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Darlington Flashback

As part of Darlington Raceway's $10 million repaving project, the concrete retaining walls lining the legendary track were pressure-washed last week, uncovering a hidden treasure. Underneath the white paint was the familiar red "NASCAR Winston Cup" signage that adorned the walls from 1972 through 2003.