Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stewart To Haas-CNC; The Plot Thickens

More information has surfaced on the story we first discussed yesterday; that two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart is working on a deal to jump from Joe Gibbs Racing to Haas CNC Racing next season. Both and Sports Illustrated’s website -- – say Stewart will be given partial ownership in Haas CNC Racing, in exchange for his agreement to drive for the team, beginning in 2008.

Stewart’s contract with JGR runs through the 2009 campaign, making a move before then extremely complicated, if not impossible. Stewart's PR spokesman, Mike Arning, admitted as much yesterday, saying, “He's there this year, and he's there next year. I know for a fact that JGR is interested in retaining Tony for 2010 and beyond. They'd like him to retire at Joe Gibbs Racing. As Tony's said many times, 'Nothing's broke. Why change it?'”

The reports persist, however, saying that Stewart has begun talks with JGR officials to obtain a release from the final year of his contract. Team President J.D. Gibbs made it clear that he expects Stewart to honor his contract to the letter, saying, “The reality is, he's racing here through 2009. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that one. Our stance is he's racing for us through 2009."

The reported deal has Stewart receiving as much as a 50% ownership stake in Haas-CNC Racing, while also being paid to drive one of their two Chevrolets. Haas-CNC General Manager Joe Custer admitted today that he has spoken with several parties about the future of the team, including Stewart's representatives. That admission contradicts the statements of Haas-CNC spokesman Ron Mench, who said yesterday that there has been no communication with Stewart. Custer said that no deal has been reached, but that he would be “interested in discussing a partnership with a driver of (Stewart’s) caliber."

If the move happens, Stewart would return to the Chevrolet camp after a year with Toyota. Many observers point to Stewart’s ongoing relationship with Chevrolet -– which supplies engines to his open wheel midget and sprint car teams -– as a major factor in his decision to bolt JGR. However, Stewart drove JGR Chevrolets for many years, while receiving Mopar engines and financial backing for his short track programs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

COMMENTARY: Sellers Ruling Means Nothing In The Cup Garage

NASCAR stripped Peyton Sellers of his victory in the Camping World East Series race at in South Carolina’s Greenville-Pickens Speedway Saturday night, and nobody seems to be sure what (if anything) it means for the rest of NASCAR.

Both Sellers and team owner Andy Santerre say the violation was unintentional, and Santerre told Sirius Speedway Wednesday that he sold the shock absorber in question -- as part of a set of four -- to a now-defunct Hooters Pro Cup Series team, then bought them back when that team folded a short time later. One of the shocks ended up on Sellers’ car Saturday night, and when NASCAR disassembled it in post-race inspection, they discovered it to be illegal.

“There are two things that could have happened,” said Santerre. “Either we built it wrong in the first place, or something got changed afterward.” Santerre said he does not dispute the fact that the part in question was illegal, but insists that the sanction is unfairly severe. NASCAR has handled similar violations in the past with monetary fines, point penalties and crewchief suspensions, allowing the victory to stand. ASM’s crewchief, H.C. Sellers, was suspended for three races.

The top-five cars in each Camping World East Series race have their transmissions, rear-end gears and shocks inspected, and Santerre said, “It would be stupid to do something that blatant intentionally when we know it will be checked.” The longtime driver and team owner was critical of NASCAR’s handling of the situation, saying, “The guys that make the decisions like this for our series are not the ones that are at the tracks every week seeing the competitors and how they cooperate. This has a big effect on me in this sport. We’re one of the only developmental teams in the series, and we know that we need to keep a clean reputation. I can’t stress enough how important it is to me to have legal cars that pass tech.” NASCAR has said that the penalty cannot be appealed.

ASM Motorsports Vice President Sue Santerre (wife of Andy Santerre) told Sirius Speedway today, “The decision to strip the win from Andy and Peyton was made by committee from the R&D Center. NASCAR will not reveal who is on the committee. Andy specifically asked (Camping World East Director) Lee Roy if Mike Helton was aware of this decision. Lee instructed us he was the final signature. It is our understanding that Lee Roy and Tech Director, Andy Mitchell have no say in the committee decision.”

The consensus of opinion across much of NASCAR Nation is that last weekend’s decision somehow sends a message to the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series. In this reporter’s opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. My experience –- drawn from more than 30 years of racing at the local and regional levels -- is that NASCAR does not govern its grassroots series’ the way it governs the so-called “big three.” And as a result, the events of last Saturday night at Greenville-Pickens Speedway will likely have no impact on anything that happens this weekend at either Talladega or Kansas.

In a nutshell, NASCAR has one way of dealing with the little guys, and another way of dealing with the big guys. That’s not necessarily wrong, either, since regional racing is -– in many ways -– completely different from what's happening at the top of the NASCAR ladder. No one would argue that a short-track Late Model should be built according to the Sprint Cup rulebook, and the procedures used to govern Sunday’s race at Talladega would result in pandemonium at your local quarter-mile dirt track.

NASCAR’s decision will have wide-reaching impact at the local and regional levels of the sport. But at the top of the ladder, my expectation is that it will be business as usual.

Monday, April 14, 2008

NASCAR's Drug Policy Has It Half Right

NASCAR President Mike Helton was half-right this weekend, when he said NASCAR’s approach to substance abuse issues is working.

NASCAR currently tests its athletes for banned substances only when it feels a need to do so, trusting the judgement of its officials and competitors to detect potential problems in the garage area. Erratic conduct –- on or off the racetrack -– can earn a driver or crewmember a mandatory invitation to be tested, and in Helton’s opinion, the system works.

“The community polices the community,” said Helton in an interview with The Associated Press. “We're different than other sports, where we have multiple layers of independence. We know of car owners that have random testing programs with their employees. Those elements are already there. There's a lot of ways to attack this animal, and a lot of ways to do it, but the shared responsibility between the competitors, the car owners and NASCAR, I think, works.”

Helton hailed NASCAR’s response to proven cases of substance abuse, calling it one of the most stringent in all of sports. "When we do…authenticate the abuse of a substance, it is a severe reaction,” he said. “It's not just a couple of weeks off, it's a very severe, career-changing reaction from us that I think speaks loudly."

On that point, Helton is absolutely correct. NASCAR deals with substance abusers more quickly, severely and publically than any other sport, and it should be applauded for doing so. Unfortunately, its methods for detecting substance abuse are not nearly so laudable.

The sanctioning body’s “If You Do It, We Will Know It” approach to substance abuse dates back to the mid-1980s, when driver Tim Richmond raised red flags from one end of the NASCAR garage to the other. Richmond’s playboy lifestyle, erratic behavior and frequent health problems prompted a number of his fellow drivers to complain to NASCAR about possible drug use, and after a life-threatening case of pneumonia caused him to miss much of the 1987 season, rumors of his alleged drug use ran wild. When he attempted to compete in the 1988 Daytona 500, NASCAR tested him for drugs, discovering high doses of over-the-counter medication in his system. NASCAR refused to let Richmond compete, even after he passed a second test.

Richmond died of AIDS on August 7, 1989, and since then, NASCAR’s substance abuse policy is virtually unchanged. As a result, the vast majority of competitors in NASCAR’s top series’ have never – ever -- been tested for banned substances. That’s an incredible statement in this day and age, and it is a fact that does not sit well with many drivers.

"In the 10 years that I've raced, I've never been drug-tested," said Kevin Harvick last week. "To me, that's not a proper drug policy for a professional sport. We haven't made any headway whatsoever on the drug-testing policy."

Tony Stewart agreed, saying, “I think it should be mandatory to have random drug testing. The (Aaron) Fike situation shows that as an organization, we're not doing a good job of seeing this before it happens."

Clearly, Fike’s admission that he used heroin daily in the eight weeks prior to his arrest – even on days when he competed on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – raises a warning flag about NASCAR’s ability to detect drug abuse in its ranks. Had Fike not been arrested in the parking lot of an amusement park with heroin and drug paraphernalia in his possession, he would have continued to compete, endangering himself and others for at least a while longer.

NASCAR never knew Fike had a problem. Neither did his Red Horse Racing team, which saw nothing to indicate the presence of a drug problem. Fike’s own family – the people who presumably know him best – had no idea that he had descended into the black hole of heroin addiction. If they didn't see it, NASCAR cannot reasonably be expected to have done so.

Yes, the system is antiquated, with loopholes big enough for a heroin addict to pass through undetected. But many of us share the blame, as well. At least two drivers -- Harvick and Kasey Kahne – say they have suspected a fellow driver of drug use in the past, but said nothing about it to NASCAR. Media members and fans have remained smug and secure for far too long, clinging to the misguided belief that drugs cannot invade our sport the way they have infiltrated every other facet of society.

We were wrong.

Aaron Fike’s recent admission proves that NASCAR’s current system of detection does not work. His revelations should shake all of us – Mike Helton included – out of the doldrums once and for all. If someone with a daily crank habit can escape detection while racing at the front of the NASCAR pack, someone with a recreational marijuana or cocaine problem will have no trouble doing the same.

NASCAR’s method for dealing with substance abusers is top-shelf. But its ability to find them needs an immediate and thorough overhaul.

“If I have to pee in a cup 15 times a year, I'm happy to do it,” said Harvick. “I want everybody in the world to know our sport is clean. I want fans and sponsors to know this garage is clean."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Harvicks-Vandergriff To Form Partnership

Kevin and DeLana Harvick will join with veteran Bob Vandergriff, Jr., to field a Top Fuel dragster on the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series next season.

Vandergriff confirmed the project this weekend, saying, “We want to offer the companies aligned with Harvick-Vandergriff Motorsports the chance to use the best of NHRA and NASCAR through the same program.”

He and the Harvicks will begin assembling the team within the next two months, with an eye toward a 2009 debut. The Harvick-Vandergriff partnership should be attractive to potential sponsors, offering exposure in the NHRA, NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide, and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series’.

Harvick confirmed the project this weekend, saying, "The response from the companies we've spoken to already has been tremendous," Harvick said. “The more we come to understand what is happening in the NHRA, the more attractive it's becoming as a whole.”

Bob Vandergriff, Jr., will join us today on Sirius Speedway to discuss the project.

Stremme To Penske? Published reports this weekend say that David Stremme will join Penske Racing as a test driver, a move that could put him in the drivers seat of the team’s #77 Mobil One Dodge for the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

That car is currently driven by former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish, Jr. But Hornish stands 33rd in points in his rookie season, prompting speculation that he may elect to bypass the Coke 600 in favor of driving Penske’s currently idle #77 IndyCar in the Indianpolis 500.

Penske’s three-car entry for the Indianapolis 500 shows Helio Castroneves at the wheel of the Penske Racing #3, with teammate Ryan Briscoe in the #6. The driver of Penske’s #77 entry is listed as "TBA," prompting speculation that Hornish could run the race on a one-off basis. That move would presumably put Stremme in the driver’s seat of Penske’s Spring Cup car at Lowes Motor Speedway.

Stremme has once again become a hot property in the NASCAR ranks, after being released by Ganassi Racing at the end of the 2007 season. He ranks 13th in NASCAR Nationwide Series points for Rusty Wallace Racing, and has played a major role in turning that team’s fortunes around. He finished tenth in Friday night's Bashas' Supermarkets 200 at Phoenix International Raceway; his third Top-10 finish in the last four races. Published reports say he has recently turned down at least two offers to return to the Sprint Cup Series.

Rest In Peace, Bree

NASCAR inspector Brienne Davis was killed last night in an automobile accident during rush hour on I-77 North near Huntersville, NC.

Her truck reportedly sideswiped another vehicle near Exit 23, and she was thrown from the vehicle when it overturned. She was airlifted from the accident scene to Carolinas Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead. The driver of the other vehicle was not seriously injured.

Brienne got her start in the sport at age 22, working in the engine shop at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Her initial goal was to become the first female over-the-wall crewmember in NASCAR Cup racing; a goal she had both the determination and physical ability to achieve. She eventually joined NASCAR as an official in 2004, working primarily in the post-race tech line, tearing down the engines of the top three cars.

She also worked as a corner flagger/spotter, and she and I spent plenty of time hanging off the back of billboards together over the last few seasons. She was a free spirit, always good for a laugh and totally at ease in any environment.

I last spoke with her a week ago Sunday, in the parking lot of our hotel in Martinsville. It was 6 a.m., barely 40 degrees, and Bree was firing up her Harley for the ride to the track, wearing just about every item of clothing she owned. She told me that three or four different teams had offered to haul the bike back to Charlotte for her, but that she was determined to ride it home because she didn’t want people to think she was a wimp.

As she spoke, it began to rain. I laughed, “Great idea, Davis, enjoy the frostbite!” She laughed, flipped me the bird and rode away. She was quite a girl, and she will be missed by so many of us in the NASCAR garage. Brienne Davis was just 28 years old.

Rest in Peace, Bree.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Fike Used Heroin On Race Day

Suspended NASCAR driver Aaron Fike has admitted that as part of his long-term addiction to drugs, that he sometimes injected heroin on race days.

In an interview with ESPN, Fike said that at the time of his arrest in early July of last year, he had been had been using heroin for eight months, and had been dependent on painkillers for six years. He said that in the weeks prior to his arrest at the King’s Island Amusement Park, he had used heroin daily, including days when he competing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Fike and his fiancee were arrested on charges of possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia, and were were suspended indefinitely by NASCAR. Fike peaded guilty guilty to possession of a drug abuse instrument and a reduced charge of attempted possession of heroin in November of 2007, and was sentenced to two years of probation after agreeing to establish a non-profit anti-drug group.

He has returned to racing on the USAC Midget series, where he is tested upon arrival at the track each week. He said he has spoken with NASCAR officials about beginning the process of reinstatement, but admits that his stock car career may be over. He added that he hopes his admission of racing while under the influence of heroin will prompt NASCAR officials to rethink their drug testing policy.

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said the sanctioning body is looking at the more stringent, random drug testing policies recently adopted by Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA and NHL. In his words, "Our current policy has served us extremely well. We do have discussions from time to time regarding possible alternatives, so I wouldn't rule those out.”

"Cousin Carl" Got It Right

It’s not hard to find someone willing to complain about NASCAR’s new racecar these days. Shove a microphone under virtually any driver’s nose – sometimes even in Victory Lane -- and you’ll probably get an earful. They’re bulky, balky, reticent in the corners and difficult to handle. They’re demanding and finicky; either too aero-dependent or not aero-dependent enough, depending on who you ask. And the chorus of critics is becoming downright deafening.

"I can't believe how bad these things drive,” said Jimmie Johnson Sunday, just moments after recording the best finish of his troubling 2008 season to date. “These things are terrible to drive in traffic. You would catch people, (but then be forced to) run their pace. I really think we need to look at some changes to help these cars not be so aero-dependent; to have a little more downforce so…there is more grip in the car.”

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon agreed, after finishing dead-last for only the second time in his career. "I can't remember the last time we struggled this bad,” he said. ”We tried every setup we could find. None of them seemed to work. I was just hanging on every single lap. There's some crazy setups going on in these cars right now.”

Kyle Busch, who set the tone by winning the first-ever COT race last season, then calling his winning mount “junk” in Victory Lane, was uncharacteristically closed-mouthed after Sunday’s race, saying, “I am not answering that question. Go to NASCAR to answer that question."

OK, we get it. Even some of the drivers who DIDN’T run like crap Sunday don’t like NASCAR’s new car.

Thank God, then, for Carl Edwards. In his post-race press conference, the Roush Fenway Racing driver stood his ground against the tsunami of COT criticism, saying he has grown tired of the incessant pit road bitching.

"Let me state my position very clearly,” said Edwards Sunday. “A lot of people say it is boring and want something to complain about, saying it's too hard to drive. The fact is, we have the 43 best drivers in the world going 200 miles per hour. That's spectacle. It's auto racing. It's not supposed to be driving down the interstate.”

“I feel like I can make a difference, lap-to-lap (in this car),” said Edwards Sunday. “I can pitch the car a little, and change what the stopwatch says every lap. That's cool. That's what I did on the local dirt tracks in Missouri. I’m tired of hearing people complain. If I was running 15th, I might have a different opinion."

Actually, “Cousin Carl” may be onto something there. Is it just me, or is the ongoing spate of COT griping coming mostly from drivers who are struggling? Johnson, Gordon and Tony Stewart -- who admittedly is focusing his ire more on Goodyear than the COT these days -– all hate to lose. It is uncharted territory for them, and after four hours of embarrassing themselves the way the Fabulous Hendrick Twins did in Las Vegas and Texas, they’re understandly looking for somewhere to vent their righteous anger.

They can’t light up the pit crew, since they’ll be needing them again next week. The same thing goes for the crewchief, the engineers and the fab-shop team. So when a driver needs to purge, there are only two convenient targets; tires and racecars. No matter who gets blamed at the end of the day, the basics of this sport never change. Somebody wins every week, and 42 others lose.

Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.

“This is auto racing,” said Edwards Sunday. “There are going to be people that are faster. I like this car, and this type of racing. I have zero issues about it, (and) I'm tired of the media making up stories about how bad it is.”

Edwards is 100% right, except for the part about it being my fault. We media members are guilty of printing and broadcasting the disparaging remarks of disgruntled drivers. But we’re also happy to discuss the possibility that this new car might NOT be the greatest threat to humanity since the bubonic plague.

Some of us are happy to point out that Sunday’s race produced 16 lead changes among six different drivers, while last April’s Samsung 500 -- in the old-style, “twisted sister” car -- saw an almost-identical 14 lead changes among nine drivers.

Some of us are willing to point out that Stewart is traditionally a slow starter, and that his career numbers for February, March and April have never been anything to write home about.

We’re even willing to discuss the fact that Hendrick Motorsports –- which aside from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., can’t seem to find its ass with both hands these days -– was dominating COT competition less than a year ago.

Some of us are even willing to state unequivocally that if Carl Edwards and his currently suspended crewchief, Bob Osbourne, can make their COT run like Jack The Bear, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus can, too.

You've just got to work a little harder, and get up on that wheel.

Notes From The Cup Garage

Those of us hoping for a Pony Car-based NASCAR Nationwide Series beginning in 2009 need to find something else to dream about, because it’s not going to happen.

General Motors Vice President of Sales Brent Dewar said this weekend that Chevrolet will not use the new Camaro body style in the Nationwide Series next season, since the brand is already projected to be a hot-seller with performance-mnded drivers. "We'll make an announcement later in the year of which brand we'll pick," said Dewar Sunday. "But it won't be Camaro, for sure.”

Ford Racing Technology Director of Dan Davis sang a similar tune earlier this year, saying that the Ford Mustang is also unlikely to see action in NASCAR’s second series. "(The Mustang) sells itself," he said. "If you've got a car that's sold out -- every one of them you make is sold -- why would you spend the extra money, time and effort to build up the brand? What you try to do is get vehicles out there that may not be as well known, and put those nameplates in front of the consumer."

GM’s Dewar said NASCAR’s need for common aerodynamic footprints between brands also works against the idea of using distinctived makes like the Camaro. "We've got a very iconic design with our Corvettes and Camaros," he said. "Based on the way the formula works (in NASCAR), we're not going to compromise our brand integrity."

Thumbs Up: Yates Racing put both its drivers in the Top-20 yesterday, with David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil finishing 15th and 18th; both in unsponsored cars.

He's No Knute Rockne: If Chip Ganassi thought a scathing, public rebuke of his underachieving race teams would inspire a better effort at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, he was mistaken.

Ganassi laid his teams out in lavender Friday, after rookie Dario Franchitti failed to make the race, and teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Reed Sorenson qualified 11th and 42nd. Ganassi told Sirius NASCAR Radio’s Steve Post, “Frankly, there are 46 cars there, and if you can't beat three of them, that's pretty pathetic. I have all the faith in the world in (Franchitti's) driving abilities. I don't think it's that. The fact of the matter is, we didn't give him a car that was capable of doing it."

He also criticized Sorenson's Target Dodge team, saying, “It's the same old things that take them out. One week it’s this, the next week it's that…it's a combination of all of the above. Everybody on the 41 team is going to have to take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are prepared for what's coming down the pike."

Friday’s upbraiding resulted in only a 24th-place finish for Sorenson, who has just one Top-20 showing – a lukewarm 18th at Las Vegas – since starting the season with a fifth in the Daytona 500. Montoya was also never a factor Sunday en route to 19th, and now stands just 19th in points. Those performances won’t do much for job security, especially when the man signing the checks said during the off-season that his operation was out of excuses, and needed to perform in 2008.

Ganassi has every right to demand better results from his teams. However, he personally hired many of the personnel in question, making one wonder if his own mirror might be in need of a “good look” or two. It may also be noteworthy that Ganassi’s post-qualifying comments were delivered -- not from the back on a NASCAR War Wagon -- but from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was busy overseeing his IndyCar operation.

Don’t be surprised to see a few shakeups at Ganassi Racing this week.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

BAM To Sit Out Texas And Phoenix

One week after a seventh-place qualifying effort at Martinsville, BAM Racing has withdrawn its #49 Toyota from the next two races at Texas and Phoenix.

Team owner Tony Morgenthau explained the decision today, saying, "Switching manufacturers was a taller order than we initially realized. While BAM Racing has a very strong short track program, our intermediate track program needs some work. Since we haven't had time to adequately test the cars, (and) since historically we don't run that well at either Texas or Phoenix; our organization has decided to take the next three weeks to focus on the remainder of the racing season. This has been a very difficult, `big picture’ decision. By taking a little time to regroup now, we should be a much stronger team for the rest of the year. For all the naysayers who predict this to be the death knell for one of the few remaining independent teams in Sprint Cup . . . wait until Talladega, then tell us if we're dead or not!"

BAM is currently 42nd in owner points, after posting a 37th-place finish at Martinsville. They have qualified for just three of this season’s six races, with a best finish of 21st at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Their withdrawal leaves 46 teams on Sunday’s entry list, with 10 “Go Or Gome Home” drivers competing for seven spots. Bill Elliott is the only former champion outside the Top-35, and his Past Champion’s Provisional makes Wood Brothers Racing a guaranteed starter Sunday.