Friday, September 30, 2011

Germain Mulling Manufacturer Change

Germain Racing majority owner Bob Germain told Sirius XM NASCAR Radio’s Sirius Speedway with Dave Moody that his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team may not return to the Toyota camp in 2012.

“There is a possibility that we might not be a Toyota team next year,” said Germain. “I never thought we’d be running anything but a Toyota, but I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get on the TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engine program. We wanted to buy TRD motors for next year’s Sprint Cup effort, but with Joe Gibbs Racing getting out of the engine business at the end of this year, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get our engines from TRD."

Germain explained that TRD will have the capacity to build six sets of Sprint Cup Series engines next season. JGR's trio of Camrys driven by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano accounts for three sets and Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex, Jr. and David Reutimann account for two more. That leaves one engine set to be allotted, without accounting for MWR’s expected third 2012 entry driven by Clint Bowyer, or JTG Daugherty Racing and driver Bobby Labonte.

“Toyota has told us they will try to work something out,” said Germain, “but it’s not certain. There is a possibility that we may have to look elsewhere. We had already promised GEICO that we would go with TRD engines next year (after running Triad power in the past), and they were really excited about that. I never thought there would be a problem doing it, but now apparently, there is.”

Germain said he has already spoken to other manufacturers about possible 2012 alliances. “We went out and looked around little bit,” he said. “We talked to Ford Racing and we talked to Rick Hendrick a while back, just to see what’s out there and how their programs work. My hope is still to stay with Toyota, but we may not be able to do so.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

More Truck Series Layoffs Looming

Just days after the Red Bull Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team confirmed that more than 150 employees will lose their jobs if the team closes its doors on December 17, more than 200 employees of Kevin Harvick Inc., and Germain Racing received similar notices this week.

KHI has already announced plans to merge its Nationwide Series effort with Richard Childress Racing, while shutting down its Camping World Truck Series operation. The team filed notice under the North Carolina Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) this week that it will lay off approximately 103 workers on or about Nov. 25; a week following the Camping World Truck Series finale at Homestead Miami Speedway. KHI recently sold its #8 and #33 Truck teams to Eddie Sharp Racing, and co-owner Delana Harvick said Sharp has expressed an interest in hiring an unspecified number of displaced KHI’s employees for his operation. She called that commitment “a major factor” in the decision to sell KHI’s truck teams to ESR.

Germain Racing confirmed today what first reported on September 12; that it will lay off an unspecified number of employees at season’s end, as well. General Manager Mike Hillman, Sr., blamed the cutbacks on uncertainty surrounding the team’s three Truck Series entries. He said that while Germain will field its #9 GEICO Sprint Cup Series Toyota again next season, there is currently no sponsorship in place for the Truck Series Tundras currently driven by Todd Bodine, Brendan Gaughan and Max Papis. Gaughan is expected to leave the team at the end of the season, and while Bodine says he would like to return to Germain next season, he admitted that he has spoken to other teams about possible rides for 2012. Papis’ plans for next year are uncertain.

Hillman said layoffs are not uncommon at the end of a race season, adding, “We began this process two weeks ago, and it’s not a lot different than what we’ve been through in previous seasons. We have been fortunate to sign a lot of our (sponsorship) deals in December and January. Unfortunately, that saddles us with layoffs in November.” He said Germain Racing informed employees of potential layoffs to warn them “that they should be sure they are comfortable with their employment situation for the coming season.” He said the team has no plans to close its doors, saying Germain Racing “will be in business in 2012 and beyond (and)… will continue to work on securing sponsorship in order to pursue more NASCAR success in the future.”

The state of North Carolina requires employers to provide 60-days notice if at least 50 employees (or 33% of the company’s total work force) will be laid off at an individual site.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Angie's "Better Half" Photo Album

At Wednesday afternoon's practice session for the Better Half Dash at Charlotte Motor Speedway, crewchief Ray Evernham is either helping Angie Skinner adjust her belts, or copping a cheap feel! Maybe a little of both. Attaboy Ray!

Erin Crocker, Angie Skinner and Ray Evernham at last night's practice for the Better Half Dash at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Of the three, how does ANGIE end up wearing the firesuit?

Angie Skinner, all strapped in and ready to become Angie SPINNER!

Angie tells everyone who will listen about shattering the track record (sort of) at CMS.

NASCAR Announces 2012 Sprint Cup Schedule

NASCAR announced today its 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, with a lineup featuring a number of adjustments from 2011. One of those adjustments takes place during NASCAR’s playoffs -– the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -– and could affect strategy during the championship run. Talladega Superspeedway’s Chase event moves up two weeks to Oct. 7, becoming the fourth race in the Chase. Often labeled as the wild-card track in the Chase, the Talladega event currently falls during the first half of the Chase.

Talladega swaps its Chase date with Kansas Speedway (Oct. 21) to accommodate Kansas’ repave, scheduled for after the track’s spring event. As such, Kansas’ spring date has also been moved. Kansas now will be the eighth race of the season on April 22. Talladega’s spring event moves to May 6, and Dover International Speedway’s spring event returns to its traditional spot on June 3.

As previously announced, the season-opening Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway will begin one week later next year, with the running of the preseason “non-points” Shootout at Daytona on Feb. 18. The 54th annual Daytona 500 will run on Feb. 26. The race dates for Phoenix International Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway have also been moved a week later, to March 4 and March 11, respectively.

Two other adjustments have been made to the 2012 schedule. Texas Motor Speedway’s spring date will be moved to April 14, to accommodate the traditional open week for the Easter holiday and Daytona’s summer event and Kentucky Speedway’s race will swap weekends. The July 4th holiday falls mid-week next year, and Kentucky’s race take place on June 30, with Daytona set for July 7.

As in past seasons, FOX will broadcast the first 13 races of next year’s schedule. TNT will follow, broadcasting the next six. ESPN/ABC will broadcast the final 17 events. Race start times will be announced at a later date.

“We believe the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule will once again provide fans with what they’ve come to expect every season – the world’s most exciting and competitive form of motorsports,” said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO. “Next year’s schedule has a few adjustments that we think will be good for the fans and good for the overall flow of the season. One thing will remain constant, however, and that’s the intense competition we see week in and week out from our drivers and race teams.”

NASCAR is expected to release the 2012 schedules for the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series within the next two weeks.

2/18 Daytona International Speedway (Shootout) FOX
2/19 Daytona International Speedway (Daytona 500 Qualifying) FOX
2/23 Daytona International Speedway (Duel) SPEED
2/26 Daytona 500 FOX
3/4 Phoenix International Raceway FOX
3/11 Las Vegas Motor Speedway FOX
3/18 Bristol Motor Speedway FOX
3/25 Auto Club Speedway FOX
4/1 Martinsville Speedway FOX
4/14 Texas Motor Speedway FOX
4/22 Kansas Speedway FOX
4/28 Richmond International Raceway FOX
5/6 Talladega Superspeedway FOX
5/12 Darlington Raceway FOX
5/19 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (Charlotte Motor Sp.) SPEED
5/27 Charlotte Motor Speedway FOX
6/3 Dover International Speedway FOX
6/10 Pocono Raceway TNT
6/17 Michigan International Speedway TNT
6/24 Infineon Raceway TNT
6/30 Kentucky Speedway TNT
7/7 Daytona International Speedway TNT
7/15 New Hampshire Motor Speedway TNT
7/29 Indianapolis Motor Speedway ESPN
8/5 Pocono Raceway ESPN
8/12 Watkins Glen International ESPN
8/19 Michigan International Speedway ESPN
8/25 Bristol Motor Speedway ABC
9/2 Atlanta Motor Speedway ESPN
9/8 Richmond International Raceway ABC
9/16 Chicagoland Speedway ESPN
9/23 New Hampshire Motor Speedway ESPN
9/30 Dover International Speedway ESPN
10/7 Talladega Superspeedway ESPN
10/13 Charlotte Motor Speedway ABC
10/21 Kansas Speedway ESPN
10/28 Martinsville Speedway ESPN
11/4 Texas Motor Speedway ESPN
11/11 Phoenix International Raceway ESPN
11/18 Homestead-Miami Speedway ESPN

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Are NASCAR's Ratings On The Rise?

After more than two years of steady decline, ratings for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing are suddenly on the rebound. Ratings for Sunday’s ESPN broadcast of the “Sylvania 300” from New Hampshire Motor Speedway were up 19 percent over last year's New Hampshire race, averaging 4,235,000 viewers according to Nielsen Media Research. Sunday’s event earned a 3.1 rating, compared to a 2.6 rating a year ago; good for approximately 558,000 additional viewers.

The story behind those numbers also bodes well for NASCAR’s 2011 Chase. Nielsen reported a 28-percent increase in the highly desirable 18 to 34-year old male demographic for Sunday’s race, along with a 20-percent increase in the male 18-49 demographic and a 33-percent upswing in viewers age 55 and older.

There are a number of possible explanations for this sudden ratings surge. Sunday’s 2 pm ET start – one hour later than in the regular season – almost certainly played a role, reeling-in viewers when they wandered away from their favorite National Football League game at halftime. ESPN’s new NASCAR NonStop format – with a split-screen featuring racing on one side and commercial announcements on the other -- gave viewers fewer opportunities to wander back to the gridiron, as well.

There were four fewer minutes of commercial announcements in this year’s race than in 2010, and NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was in the thick of the championship chase for the first time in recent memory. After racing to a third-place finish in the Chase opener a week before at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt was a contender again at New Hampshire, remaining in contention for the win until a flat tire relegated him to a disappointing 17th place finish. Whether Earnhardt remains a factor in the Chase going forward remains to be seen, but at New Hampshire, he was a player.

More difficult to quantify – but undeniably a factor – is the prospect of NASCAR crowning a champion not named Johnson for the first time in more than half a decade. Fairly or not, many NASCAR fans have grown tired of laying down their hard-earned money to see the same movie, over and over again. We won’t see the closing credits of year’s motion picture for a few weeks yet, but it appears we may have an new leading man in 2011.

Ratings for ESPN's portion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season are up two percent over last year; a figure that does not include three rained-out races that ran the following day. It does, however, include the Bristol race, which was pre-empted in favor of NFL preseason football in a number of prime markets, dramatically impacting the overall numbers.

After a long drought, it appears NASCAR’s ratings are finally on the rebound. The reasons for that surge remain open for debate.

NASCAR Schedules To Tweet Tomorrow

NASCAR will officially begin releasing their 2012 schedule Wednesday at noon ET through a series of Twitter announcements, headed by Steve O'Donnell. The sanctioning body will release 10 tweets, grouping the races by month. Tweets will be sent every five minutes to allow time for fan reaction, and the final tweet will contain a link to the full schedule.

Fans interesting in receiving the tweets should follow @NASCAR. You can also follow along by listening to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90, and follow us on Twitter (@SiriusXMNASCAR) where we'll re-tweet the NASCAR posts.

K&N East Leader Gresham Set For NASCAR Truck Series Debut

NASCAR K&N Pro Series East point leader Max Gresham will compete in three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events this season for Stacy Compton’s Turn One Racing. Gresham tops the East Series standings heading into Friday afternoon’s season finale at Dover International Speedway, ands will make his Truck series debut in a Chevrolet Silverado fielded by Turn One Racing in the October 5 “Smith’s 350” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He is also scheduled to compete in the “Kroger 200” at Martinsville (VA) Speedway on October 29 and in the “Ford 200” at Homestead-Miami (FL) Speedway on November 18.
“I’m extremely excited to go to Turn One Racing and work with Stacy Compton and the whole group there for some races at the end of this season,” said Gresham. “It’s going to be a big step in my career and it’s great I can take it with them. This is going to be important for me because I will be able to get laps under my belt before hopefully moving into the Truck Series full-time in 2012.”

Gresham has posted two wins, eight Top-5 and 10 Top-10 finishes in 11 K&N Pro Series Easts tarts this season. The 18-year old Belmont Abbey College freshman has also claimed the pole in four races, and is the only driver to complete every one of the 1,553 laps run this season. He and his #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team have a 21-point lead in the championship standings heading to the Monster Mile this weekend.

Gresham, a native of Griffin, GA, began his career in the Bandolero division at Atlanta Motor Speedway at age eight, and has competed in 11 events on the ARCA Series presented by Menards over the past two seasons. He has one win, two poles and six Top-10 finishes in ARCA competition, driving for Venturini Motorsports.

“We’ve been talking to Max quite a bit this season,” said Compton of the move. “We’ve watched him race the past couple of years and felt like he and (current Turn One driver) Cole Whitt have as much talent or more than anyone coming through the sport. Chevrolet is really excited about working with a young talent like Max, too. These guys are the NASCAR stars of the future, and to have them in our stable now is really great.”

Katie Kenseth Hurt In "Better Half" Crash

The wife of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth was injured early Monday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway while practicing for a charity race involving wives and girlfriends of NASCAR drivers.

Katie Kenseth lost control of her Bandolero race car exiting the second turn of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s quarter-mile short track and impacted the wall, suffering a fractured scapula (shoulder blade), bumps and bruises. Matt Kenseth rushed to her side immediately after the crash, and assisted rescuers in removing her from the damaged racer.

She was treated and released at a local hospital, with Matt Kenseth confirming her injuries in a subsequent Twitter posting. "That didn't turn out so well,” tweeted Kenseth. “Katie and I are home, she has a broken scapula and some bumps and bruises. Thanks for all the well wishes."

He later joked that his wife had dubbed her outing, “the shortest racing career in history," adding, “I got to learn something new -- how to put a bra ON!"

Katie Kenseth was practicing for the “Better Half Dash,” a fundraising event vent for Motor Racing Outreach and Speedway Children's Charities that includes more than a dozen NASCAR wives and girlfriends, including Sirius Speedway co-host Angie Skinner. The race is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 15, prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hornaday Swaps Rides For KHI This Weekend

Sirius XM NASCAR Radio's Sirius Speedway With Dave Moody has learned that multi-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday, Jr., will drive Kevin Harvick, Inc.'s #2 Hollywood Casino Chevrolet Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, in an attempt to bolster the team’s bid to win the 2011 Camping World Truck Series Owner’s Championship.

KHI’s #2 Truck has been piloted by a number of drivers this season -- including Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler and others -- and holds a 33-point edge over the #18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota in the battle for the owner’s title. KHI co-owner Delana Harvick said the ride swap will be "a week by week process," with Cale Gale replacing Hornaday in the #33 Rheem Heating and Air Conditioning Chevrolet this weekend in Kentucky. The #33 truck is currently seventh in owner points and out of title contention.

Penske "Embarrassed" By Tech Line Issues

Team owner Roger Penske says he is embarrassed that Kurt Busch’s Shell-Pennzoil Dodge did not appear on the starting grid until minutes before the start of Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Busch’s Dodge failed to pass pre-race inspection due to a minor rear end discrepancy – the latest in a series of minor inspection issues that have plagued the team in recent weeks – and Penske says NASCAR officials sent a message that the continued issues must stop.

“The last two or three weeks, we had been late getting through tech,” he said. “Then, if we had a little bit of a problem, we had to go back through again. (NASCAR) said, ‘We’ve had enough of you going back through for little things.’” Officials released the car from pre-race inspection just 10 minutes prior to the command to fire engines Sunday, after the national anthem had already been performed. It was a move designed to make a point, and Penske said Sunday that NASCAR’s message has been received.

“I’m going to sit down with (crew chief Steve) Addington and the guys this week and say, ‘We’ve got to have our car in inspection prior to qualifying and also prior to the race on time and not have this happen again.’” He also stressed that there have been no serious technical issues with the team’s cars, saying, ““It wasn’t anything big. We’ve had all our cars (inspected by) NASCAR after our wins and there’s no issue. It is embarrassing, obviously. These (NASCAR) guys can make it tough on you. They can hurt you if they want to. I think they gave us a wave.”

While Penske said the pre-race issues had nothing to do with the team’s disappointing, 22nd place finish, Busch disagreed. “We were late going through inspection and that set the tone for our day,” said the former Sprint Cup Series champion. “We were able to stay out and lead some laps under green and Steve Addington and the guys kept making changes and got our Dodge better by the end of the race. I just wish we could have started the race with the car that good."

Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby said no penalties will be levied as a result of the #22 teams inspection issues.

Johnson Facing End Of Championship Streak

Jimmie Johnson is not immune to stumbles during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In 2006, a crash in the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway relegated the Lowes Chevrolet driver to a dismal, 39th place finish that left him ninth in the championship standings; a deficit he ultimately overcame en route to his first career Sprint Cup Series title.

This time around, however, Johnson has an even larger deficit to erase.

A pair of lackluster performances –- 10th at Chicagoland and 18th yesterday at New Hampshire -- have severely compromised his bid for a sixth consecutive title, and for the first time since that 2006 season, Johnson is no longer the favorite to win it all at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He lags 29 points behind red-hot Tony Stewart with just eight races remaining; about two-thirds of a race under NASCAR’s new, one point per position system.

Johnson at his best would have difficulty erasing such a deficit. And lately, the Hendrick Motorsports driver is showing uncharacteristic signs of weakness, both on and off the race track.

Sunday’s “Sylvania 300” at New Hampshire produced the latest in a growing series of emotional outbursts from the traditionally understated Johnson. He accused Kyle Busch of being “a bit stubborn” after the pair traded sheet metal in the late going, saying, “I had gotten inside of him the lap before and had some contact. He was running really, really tight through the corner (and) as we got off into (Turn) Three, he was so tight next to me (that) it took the air off the spoiler. I was out of control before we ever got to the turn. One of the times we hit, it whipped the wheel out of my hand and bent the right-front suspension. We were kind of dead in the water after that.”

Johnson engaged in a heated radio exchange with crew chief Chad Knaus after the incident; saying the encouragement of his longtime pit boss had become annoying and admonishing Knaus to “just let me do what I do. (Chad) was just being optimistic about what was left in my back pocket,” explained Johnson afterward. “But my suit doesn’t have any back pockets.”

Clearly, the pressure of racing from behind has begun to take its toll on the normally stoic Johnson. “I felt like we had a lot more speed after practice, but we just didn’t have the speed we were hopeful to have,” he explained. “Track position became so important and some things worked against us to mire us back in the pack. I could maybe pass one, two, three cars on new tires, and then stall out like everybody else.”

The five-time champion understands that there is no further margin for error in his quest for a record-setting sixth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title. He knows what it will take to climb out of tenth place in the championship standings, saying, “Obviously, we need eight great ones from here. We can’t run 10th anymore. We need a bunch of (wins).”

Less certain is whether he and his Lowes Chevrolet team have what it takes to prevail in their latest championship battle. “You never know what’s going to happen,” cautioned Johnson. “My experience in winning five (championships) is that we lost the points lead due to a wreck on the last lap at Talladega, and still came back and won.

“Anything can happen.”

Unfortunately, Johnson does not appear to have the speed needed to dig out of this championship hole. His average finish over the last three races is an abysmal 19.7, and that kind of performance is not the stuff of which championship comebacks are made.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Commentary: When Good Is Bad

In most professions, being good at what you do is cause for celebration. Unfortunately, when you build race tires for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, being good at what you do is sometimes a bad thing.

The first two races of the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup have boiled down to fuel mileage. At both Chicagoland and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, drivers were forced to back out of the throttle in an effort to conserve fuel, drawing the ire of fans who understandably prefer the final laps of each race to be contested at full speed. Blame for the preponderance of fuel mileage races this season has landed squarely at the feet of Goodyear, whose engineers are building tires so fast and durable that teams now prefer to keep their cars on the racetrack during late-race caution periods, gambling on fuel where once they would have pitted for fresh rubber and a full tank of gasoline.

Goodyear engineer Rick Heinrich told reporter Mike Mulhern this week that the Akron, Ohio tire maker builds tires for optimum performance, believing that NASCAR’s top drivers and teams deserve nothing less. "You have to have a tire that's good for a full fuel run,” said Heinrich, “because you don't want to put a car out on tires not equivalent to the gas range."

Goodyear spokesman Stu Grant disputed the assertion that fuel mileage is appreciably different in NASCAR’s national divisions than it was in seasons past, saying, “Actually, the gas mileage thing is probably about the same now as it was years ago.” He added that new advances in track technology have changed the face of the sport, allowing teams to race further on a set of tires than ever before.

“The new asphalt going down on these race tracks is so much better than the old asphalt,” he said. “It is much tighter. For example, when was the last time you saw a (repaved track) break up and tear apart? You don't see that anymore… because they are very, very good at what they do. The new asphalt is much more compact, and consequently, you get no tire wear.”

Grant pointed to recent resurfacing projects at Talladega, Daytona, Las Vegas, Charlotte and Darlington, saying all five speedways are substantially different than they were before repaving. “Darlington is a (perfect) example,” he said. “On the old asphalt you would see two to three seconds (per lap) of tire fall off (during a fuel run). Now, you only see a fall off of two or three-tenths.” He warned that the newly repaved Phoenix International Raceway is likely to be the same, experiencing “no tire wear at all and no fall off in lap times."

While advances in track technology have played a role for the recent upswing in fuel mileage races, NASCAR also shoulders a portion of the blame. The sanctioning body rolled out a new race car in 2007 that is considerably stronger and more durable than its predecessor. Wrecks that once resulted in badly damaged racers and debris-strewn tracks now do not merit even a brief caution flag. The best way to kill a fuel mileage race is to throw a yellow flag with 25 laps to go. But these days, it doesn’t seem to happen like it used to.

NASCAR could solve the problem by throwing a “competition caution” in the final 25 laps of every race. That approach seems over-officious at best, and downright manipulative at worst. And unless the sanctioning body requires each team to pit for tires and fuel, there will be a crew chief who elects to roll the dice and remain on track, hoping to milk his fuel cell far enough to steal a checkered flag.

Clearly, there is no “quick fix” to the events of the last two weeks. In truth, not everyone agrees that a fix is even needed. Tony Stewart, for example, likely sees no need for a late-season change. He’s enjoying this recent fuel mileage trend just fine, thank you.

There is no question, however, that Goodyear can help remedy the recent rash of fuel mileage races by building a softer tire. The question is, how soft is too soft? Most fans still recall the 2008 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where excessive wear caused tires to fail in as little as eight laps, forcing NASCAR to mandate a maddening series of competition cautions that turned the event into a competitive and public relations debacle. No one in attendance at The Brickyard that day wishes to experience anything like it, ever again. But the prospect of eight more fuel mileage races to decide NASCAR’s 2011 champion is only slightly more palatable.

Clearly, Goodyear can do better. Or in this case, worse.

Two-fer Tony; Stewart Wins Again At NHMS

Tony Stewart is learning what Jimmie Johnson has proved over and over again in the last five seasons; that regular-season momentum is not all it’s cracked up to be.

After going 0-for-26 in NASCAR’s 2011 regular-season, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion became only the second driver to win two consecutive races at the start of the postseason Chase, claiming the “Sylvania 300” at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stewart’s win came at the expense of Clint Bowyer, who forfeited the lead after running out of fuel with just three laps remaining. Ironically, Bowyer won the fall New Hampshire race a year ago when Stewart’s fuel cell sputtered dry within sight of the checkered flag.

“I know exactly how (Bowyer) feels right now,” said Stewart after the race. “I saw him slow down on the backstretch and thought, `You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It’s not the way I want to win, for sure, but we’re in the Chase now and you take it anyway you can get it.”

His second consecutive victory of 2011 allowed Stewart to wrest the points lead away from Kevin Harvick. Stewart now tops the Sprint Cup leader board for the first time this season by 7 points over Harvick. “We felt like this weekend would be a good opportunity after what we did here in the spring,” said Stewart, who trailed teammate Ryan Newman to the line in a 1-2 Stewart Haas Racing finish at Loudon in mid-July. Even with a two-race win streak in hand, however, Stewart cautioned, “we’ve still got a long way to go.”

On a day when others complained bitterly about the difficulty of passing on the flat Loudon oval, Stewart surged forward almost immediately from his 20th starting spot, gaining positions consistently throughout the day and conserving just enough fuel in a final, 50-lap green flag run to overhaul Bowyer and claim the checkered flag and a full share of championship momentum.

While Stewart’s championship stock soared Sunday, his fellow championship contenders experienced a mixed bag of success. Harvick nursed a dwindling fuel tank all the way to the checkers, claiming a 12th place finish that leaves him seven points behind Stewart heading to Dover next weekend. It wasn't the dominant performance he and his Budweiser Chevrolet team had hoped for, but the ability to salvage a decent day when so many other title contenders could not keeps them near the top of the list of title contenders with eight races to go.

Brad Keselowski shows no sign of folding under the pressure of his first Sprint Cup title run. The Wild Card qualifier followed a fifth-place finish in last week’s Chase opener at Chicagoland with a runner-up showing Sunday in New Hampshire, closing to third in the championship standings, just 11 behind Stewart.

Carl Edwards left Loudon fourth in points -- 14 behind Stewart – and has some explaining to do in tomorrow’s Roush Fenway Racing competition meeting after inadvertently dumping teammate Matt Kenseth midway in Sunday’s race. “The most frustrating part of my day was wrecking my teammate down there in Turn Two,” admitted Edwards afterward. “I did everything I could possible do to slow down (and avoid hitting Kenseth), but I couldn’t stay off him.”

Jeff Gordon broke out the shovel and began digging out of the hole he dug for himself at Chicagoland, running among the leaders all day and claiming a solid, fourth-place finish at NHMS. There’s still some shoveling to do, as evidenced by a 23-point deficit to Stewart, but Gordon Dupont/Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet team sent a clear message Sunday that they are not ready to be written off, just yet.

Kyle Busch finished 11th Sunday in Loudon, but once again struggled to deal with the pressure of Sprint Cup championship contention. Contact with defending champ Jimmie Johnson nearly sent Busch over the edge late in the race, triggered an obscenity laced radio tirade that ended only after crew chief Dave Rogers admonished Busch to rein-in his volatile temper and “get your head in the game.” To Busch’s credit, he did. But the damage was already done. Kyle now stands sixth in points, 26 behind Stewart.

Matt Kenseth dodged a major bullet Sunday, after being unable to dodge the errant front bumper of teammate Edwards. His Affliction Clothing-sponsored Ford overcame a disappointing, 27th-place qualifying effort, racing through the field no less than twice en route to a sixth-place finish that leaves him seventh in points, -26 to Stewart. The circuit heads to the Monster Mile at Dover this weekend; a track where Kenseth has dominated in the past. Another dose of domination could put him back in the thick of the title chase.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. saw an extremely competitive day ruined by a pair of cut right-front tires. The Amp Energy/National Guard driver eventually finished 18th at Loudon, dropping from fifth to eighth in championship points. Earnhardt blamed overly aggressive camber settings for his tire issues, and called the finish “frustrating.” He is now 26 point behind Stewart in the battle for the championship, leaving his fans dreaming of what might have been.

Kurt Busch’s problems began long before the green flag waved Sunday. His Shell-Pennzoil Dodge failed a first attempt at NASCAR’s pre-race inspection, forcing his team to make adjustments to the car’s rear end and present it for inspection a second time. The car was cleared for competition just 10 minutes before the command to fire engines, and a 22nd-place finish in the “Sylvania 300” left Busch ninth in points, 28 behind Stewart.

Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship suffered a major blow Sunday at the Magic Mile. Johnson and his Lowe’s Chevrolet team never approached their usual postseason form, and lost a number of positions in that late-race fender swapping session with Kyle Busch en route to a lackluster, 18th place finish that leaves him 10th in points, 29 behind the leader. There haven’t been many “do or die” moments for Johnson in past Chases, but next weekend’s race at Dover may be precisely that.

Ryan Newman qualified on the pole and led the first 59 laps Sunday, only to come up short when it mattered most. His US Army Chevrolet limped onto pit road for a splash of fuel with less than 10 laps to go, relegating him to a crushing, 25th place finish. That showing undid all the good done by last weekend’s Top-10 showing at Chicagoland, leaving the Rocketman 11th in championship points, 34 behind teammate Tony Stewart

After badly damaging his title hopes with a 32nd-place finish in Joliet last weekend, Denny Hamlin had another ugly day Sunday. The Fed Ex Toyota driver gambled on fuel and came up a whopping three laps short en route to a 29th place finish that leaves him a whopping 66 points behind; thoroughly, completely and undeniably out of title contention.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Red Bull Warns Employees, Jobs Are in Jeopardy

There is bad news and more bad news for employees of Red Bull Racing this week.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team has raced for most of this season under a cloud of uncertainty, after Austrian energy drink magnate Dietrich Mateschitz announced he was putting the team up for sale, with an eye toward exiting NASCAR at season’s end.

Now, Red Bull Racing has filed documents under the North Carolina Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act informing more than 150 employees that they could lose their jobs if the team closes its doors on December 17. The filing does not mean a decision has been made to shut down the team, but it does indicate that there is no new buyer or sponsor waiting in the wings.

Despite being informed that their jobs could end in less than 90 days, Red Bull employees remain under contract to the team and are forbidden from seeking future employment elsewhere. “I can’t even talk to anyone,” said one Red Bull crewman, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I may not have a job in three months, but my hands are tied when it comes to finding a new one. It’s a tough position to be in.”

Red Bull Racing Vice President/General Manager Jay Frye has been actively recruiting potential buyers and sponsors for the team in an effort to keep it on track in 2013, but has been unable to put a deal together. “We heard rumors for a while about a possible buyer in Europe, and there was supposedly another group in Brazil that was interested,” said the Red Bull crewmember. “But it’s getting late (in the season) now, and it doesn’t look like there’s anything happening.”

Red Bull Racing has declined to comment on the WARN filing.

Michigan International Speedway Resurrecting Historic Road Courses

The massive repaving project at Michigan International Speedway continues on schedule, but it’s not the only race course on site being resurfaced as part of the $7 million project. The speedway’s internal road course is also on the docket for the first repave in track history.

MIS will utilize the soon-to-be resurfaced internal road course -- not for professional racing -- but as a testing facility for automotive manufacturers and other various R&D efforts. The road course could also potentially be used for karting and car club activities.

“Paving the internal road course is important to us because we need the infrastructure to assist auto manufacturers and other groups in their various testing activities,” said track President Roger Curtis. “We want MIS to continue to be a test-bed for connected vehicle and other technologies, because we are in the backyard of the automotive capital of the world. It only makes sense to improve our facilities to assist groups with their R&D opportunities.”

The Irish Hills facility has hosted a variety of testing activities over the past few years, including a recent test by the U.S. Department of Transportation in August. With state-of-the-art pit road suites and a revamped Media Center building that opened in 2010, along with a repaved road course and oval in 2012, Curtis said MIS will have the necessary infrastructure for more R&D testing in the future.

“Once the repave project is complete, we will have an improved testing facility that will be even more attractive for groups wanting to test their respective technologies,” Curtis said.

MIS once featured two road courses on its property, dating back to the track’s opening in 1968. The original layout included infield and exterior roads, which could be combined to form a 3.1-mile road course, or divided into separate 1.9-mile interior/exterior circuits. The road courses were designed by Formula One great Sir Sterling Moss. The final race on the interior road course was held in 1984, and the exterior circuit has not been used since 1973.

“You can still drive the road courses that wind throughout the speedway property, but the asphalt has obviously been deteriorating over the past few decades,” said Curtis. “This repave of the internal road course will give us the ability to host test and training sessions in our non-event times, which will benefit the groups who choose to utilize it.”

Fans can view the repaving project live by visiting

BREAKING NEWS: Sharp Purchases KHI Assets

The Eddie Sharp Racing NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team has acquired many of the assets of what is now Kevin Harvick, Inc., and will field a three-truck operation in 2012.

The team will convert from Toyota to Chevrolet next season, after driver Justin Lofton drove a #6 ESR Chevrolet purchased from Kevin Harvick, Inc., last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Horsepower is expected to come from Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines, with an additional technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.

“I have obtained majority ownership of #8 and #33 teams from KHI,” confirmed Sharp this morning. “We will make all our announcements about drivers and sponsors in the near future, but the plan at present is for us to run three trucks next season.”

The teams will operate out of ESR's current 40,000 square-foot facility in Denver, N.C. "The timing couldn't have been any more perfect," said Sharp today. "We are ready to take this opportunity head-on, to utilize what Kevin and DeLana (Harvick) have built. It was a marriage made in heaven, because we were ready to move forward at ESR, and this opportunity worked out perfectly. With KHI, you have a turnkey, successful program at the ready."

Lofton has driven Sharp's #6 truck to 19th place in Camping World Truck Series points, 57 out of the Top 12.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Native Son Pete Rondeau Leads Furniture Row Racing To NHMS

For Pete Rondeau, crew chief of the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet driven by Regan Smith, this weekend's Sprint Cup race -- the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- carries special significance.

Rondeau is a New England native, hailing from Saco, Maine, located 90 miles north from New Hampshire Motor Speedway's Magic Mile in Loudon. Before he headed south to North Carolina in 1998 to work full-time in NASCAR, Rondeau drove race cars at short tracks throughout New England, including Super Late Model cars on the American Canadian Tour. He also raced seven times at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in what is now known as the K&N Pro Series East.

"I guess you could say New Hampshire Motor Speedway is my home track on the NASCAR circuit," said Rondeau. "It's always nice to return to my roots in New England. I would like nothing better than to walk away with a strong finish on Sunday."

Rondeau knows how it feels to walk out of a race track with a stalwart result. He directed Smith to an upset victory earlier in this year in the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. He also saw his driver lead the Daytona 500 with a few laps remaining, finish eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway and post a third-place result at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Brickyard 400.

"We had our goals at the beginning of the year and have achieved most of them," said Rondeau. "We definitely have done enough good things this season to put together a nice highlight video."

The Maine native said his number-one goal for the remainder of the season is to deliver consistency from the single car, Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team. "We need more consistency with our finishes," explained Rondeau. "It seems like we have a couple of good races, followed by a couple of bad ones. I would like to see us have results between the Top-10 and Top-15 in the remaining races. That would be a great springboard for 2012.

"When you finish in the 30s, it puts you way behind in points. We've had too many of those types of finishes; most of them as a result of being collected in accidents or mechanical issues."

One of those disheartening Rondeau spoke of came at New Hampshire in July. As the fuel-mileage race was winding down, Smith's Furniture Row Chevrolet was running solidly in 11th place. But as happened to a number of others drivers, the #78 Chevrolet sputtered out of gas on the final lap, relegating he team to a 33rd-place finish.

"That was one of many races that got away from us," said Rondeau. "Hopefully we'll run as strong this weekend at New Hampshire as we did in July, then capitalize on the strong performance with a solid finish."

Smith, who honed his fuel management skills en route to a 17th-place finish in Monday's rain-delayed "GEICO 400" at Chicagoland Speedway, agrees with his crew chief when it comes to consistency. "Pete has done a great job for us and I know that being back in New England is a special weekend for him," said Smith. "I agree with what Pete has said about us needing more consistency to get to that next level of competition. You look at the record of the Chase drivers, and consistency is the key to their success."

Coming off two consecutive Top-20 finishes -- 18th at Richmond and 17th at Chicagoland -- Smith said he believes both finishes should have been better. "Our goal every week is to run in the Top-10, and that's what we'll strive for on Sunday."

Miller Named To New Post At MWR

Michael Waltrip Racing has named industry veteran Scott Miller Executive Vice President of Competition effective at the conclusion of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Miller has served in several roles during his 16-year stint in NASCAR, most recently as Director of Competition at Richard Childress Racing. Miller has been a winning crew chief and has repeatedly guided teams into the Chase for the Sprint Cup from his management role. MWR oo-owner Michael Waltrip said the addition of Miller is part of his and co-owner Rob Kauffman’s commitment to consistent race winning and on-track performance.

“This is the highest ranking role in our competition department and we needed a person with great knowledge of our sport, experience in managing highly competitive personnel, and a vast technical background,” said Waltrip. “Scott is exactly all of those things. This is such an important hire for our organization.

“Scott is used to winning, and we expect a lot of each other. As owners, our job is to provide our teams the human and capital resources needed to be successful. This is another step in that maturing process.”

Miller will manage all aspects of the competition side of MWR, including design, manufacturing and engineering, as well as the technical relationship between Toyota Racing Development’s resource facilities in Salisbury, N.C., and Costa Mesa, Calif.

“Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman have presented me with a great opportunity to assist them in moving their organization to the next level,” Miller said. “While the team is currently performing well, the ultimate goal is to become one of the elite teams in the sport, winning races and competing for championships. MWR appears to have assembled many of the necessary resources. It will be my responsibility to use them to their full potential.”

A native of Bardstown, Ky., Miller worked his way through the Indy Lights Series and Indy cars before moving to North Carolina in 1995 to join Tri-Star Motorsports as a shock specialist. Miller has worked at Childress since 1997 except for a stint at PPI Motorsports in 2000 and 2001. He served as team engineer for Jeff Green in 2002 and worked with Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon before serving as Dave Blaney’s crew chief in August 2005. In November 2005 he became Jeff Burton’s crew chief before moving to competition director.

Crawford Lands ARCA At Mobile in 2012.

Rick Crawford continues to expand the horizons at Alabama's Mobile International Raceway.

Since taking the promotional reins at the speedway earlier this year, the former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitor has infused the facility with new promotions. The latest addition to the program is a newly announced inaugural appearance by the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards in 2012. The series will run 200 laps on the half-mile, high-banked paved oval on Saturday, March 10, 2012.

Since its inception in 1953, ARCA has raced at over 200 different speedways. Next year's event will be their first at Mobile International Speedway. "The 2012 season is ARCA's 60th, and Mobile will be the first short track on the schedule following the season opener at Daytona in February," said ARCA President Ron Drager. "The ARCA Racing Series short track races have proven to be highly competitive and entertaining, regardless of the venue. Mobile's style of racing lends itself to an exciting ARCA show."

Check Out Junior's New 2012 Ride!

Hendrick Motorsports and PepsiCo have unveiled the new Diet Mountain Dew-sponsored #88 Chevrolet that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will drive in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Earnhardt helped design the car himself -- as he did with this season's AMP Energy/National Guard entry. It features a predominantly-aluminum color scheme with dark green spikes jutting slashing upward from the car's rocker panels.

KBM Inks Mexican Champion For NH Truck Race

Kyle Busch Motorsports announced today that two-time defending NASCAR Mexico Series Champion German Quiroga will make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut in this Saturday's "F.W. Webb 175" at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Quiroga has signed a one-race deal to pilot KBM's #51 Toyota Tundra with sponsorship from Telcel, the leading provider of wireless communications services in Mexico. With four races remaining on the 2011 NASCAR Mexico Series schedule, Quiroga currently holds a 110-point lead in his quest for a third-consecutive championship. In 10 races this season, the 31-year old has collected one win, captured two poles and recorded five second-place finishes. In addition to his two Mexico Series championships, the Mexico City native has finished second in the points twice and his 15 career victories rank second in series history.

Quiroga finished 12th in the 2011 NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at California's Irwindale Speedway in January. In his lone NASCAR Nationwide Series start, he led nine laps and finished 20th in the 2007 Telcel-Motorola Mexico 200 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, Mexico. Quiroga's NASCAR resume also includes six NASCAR K&N Pro Series East starts during the 2007 season, including the New England 125 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

DeFazio: Irwindale Will Survive For Another Year

Toyota Speedway at Irwindale Vice President Bob DeFazio told today that he believes there is no truth to rumors that the 2012 season could be the last for the California track.

Toyota Speedway at Irwindale is recognized as one of the premier short track facilities in the country, with two paved oval tracks of ½ and 1/3-mile in length. Irwindale was one of the first tracks to be constructed with variable-degree banking, producing constant, side-by-side competition, and seats more than 6,000 fans. There has been speculation that declining ticket sales have impacted revenue to the point where lease payments for the land on which the speedway is built now consume a majority of the its operating capital. A lucrative naming rights contract with Toyota also expires at the end of this season, eliminating another revenue source.

Contacted today, DeFazio said he believes the track is on firm financial ground for 2012. “Stories like this pop up every year,” he said. “This probably stems from the announcement we made recently about the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown not returning next season. People take something like that and run with it.” DeFazio said attendance at the track’s 2011 race events has been varied. “We started out down, but had a pretty good summer,” he said. “We actually saw some significant gains in some of our summer shows, and out annual K&N Pro Series West crowd was better than the year before. But as football starts and other things divert people’s attention, we’ve begun to see declines in attendance again.”

The speedway’s location -- adjacent to the 605 Freeway less than 25 minutes from downtown Los Angeles – makes it a prime target for real estate developers. But DeFazio said he holds an ironclad, long-term lease on the speedway property. “We have a 52-year lease, and this is year 13,” he said. “There are no worries there. There is nothing definitive I can tell you about (the long term future of the track), but we are looking at a couple of different options for next year. As far as I know, we’re in good shape for 2012. And I’m pretty close to the situation.”

NASCAR Moves To Break Up Two-Car Drafts

NASCAR announced today that it will implement a pair of rule changes for next month's running of the "Good Sam Club 500" NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, changes designed to decrease the amount of nose-to-tail drafting in the event.

NASCAR will increase the size of the restrictor plate teams use in practice at Talladega by 1/64 inch; to a total of 57/64-inch diameter. The change is expected to increase horsepower output by approximately 7-10 horsepower. In addition to the restrictor plate change, cooling system pressure relief valves will be recalibrated to reduce pressure by approximately eight pounds per square inch. Lowering the pressurization of cooling systems will decrease the boiling point of engine coolant, forcing drivers to break out of line more frequently in order to avoid overheating.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said the changes come at the request of series competitors. "After the last few superspeedway races, we've heard many drivers express their desire to open up the size of the restrictor plate some, and we thought the time was right to do that," he said. "We anticipate these revisions in the rules package for Talladega will help continue to provide competitive and exciting racing for the fans."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Winners And Losers From a Manic Monday In Chicagoland

Monday's rain-delayed "GEICO 400" at Chicagoland Speedway was a typical opening event in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. At least one underdog leapt unexpectedly into title contention, a handful of pre-Chase favorites stumbled badly and a number of other simply did what it takes to remain in the championship picture for another week. Here's the rundown after Week One:

The Winners:

Tony Stewart – The self-declared, non-championship contender proved himself wrong Monday, claiming his first checkered flag of the season and inserting himself solidly into championship contention. Don’t look now, but Smoke has finished third, seventh and fifth in his last three starts; the kind of surge that most of us expected – but never saw – at midsummer. He suddenly trails leader Kevin Harvick by just seven points, and if he can maintain his September hot streak, he could indeed be a factor in the battle for the 2011 championship.

Kevin Harvick – While so many others shot themselves in the foot (or slightly higher), Harvick recorded the kind of sure and steady effort that wins championships. His Budweiser Chevrolet ran in the second half of the Top-10 all day, then capitalized on a handful of empty fuel cells on the final lap to record a second-place finish behind Stewart. We didn’t see Harvick at his best Monday, but he and crewchief Gil Martin turned a Top-10 kind day into a runner-up finish and a spot at the top of the championship standings, seven points ahead of Stewart.

The Losers:

Jeff Gordon – Uncompetitive throughout the day, Gordon’s recent hot streak came to a shocking end Monday with a 24th place finish. His championship hopes may have taken a similar blow. The Dupont Chevrolet qualified poorly and fell back even further in the early going before a flat right-front tire dropped him to the back of the standings. He and crewchief Alan Gustafson scrapped their way back to the Top-12 in the late going, only to sputter out of fuel as they took the white flag. Gordon is now 11th in points, 25 out of the lead, and will likely need Top-5 finishes in each of the nine remaining races to have any shot at the championship.

Matt Kenseth – The former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion looked ready to get his Chase off to a rollicking start Monday. He qualified on the pole, led early and ran among the Top-5 throughout. Roush Fenway Racing builds killer horsepower, and those ponies come in handy on 1.5-mile tracks like Chicagoland. The downside, however, is lousy fuel mileage, and Kenseth ran his fuel cell dry a full lap short of the finish. He was pushed to the line by fellow Ford pilot JJ Yeley, earning him a penalty from NASCAR that dropped him to 21st at the finish. Now 24 points out of the championship lead, Kenseth and his Crown Royal Black team can only lament what might have been.

Kyle Busch – One sure sign of autumn is when blooms begin falling off the Shrub. Busch’s lackluster, 22nd-place finish Monday had a “deja-vu” kind of feeling, and left him scrambling for relevancy for the third time in as many Chase attempts. Busch now stands ninth in points, 19 off the lead, and indulged in a scathing bit of crew-bashing midway in Monday's race. With an unfortunate history of unraveling under the pressure of past Chases, he will need to turn things around in a hurry to avoid becoming a championship afterthought yet again.

Denny Hamlin – An ill-handling race car, loose wheels, slow pit stops; Hamlin and his team were out-to-lunch in every way Monday. Multiple pit road miscues will likely receive the lion’s share of blame for Hamlin’s dismal, 31st-place finish, and while they indeed played a role, the Fed Ex Ground Toyota was simply slow from start to finish. He set the tone for an abysmal weekend by qualifying 27th, and things never got much better than that. Something is seriously amiss with the #11 team this season, and they have just two chances left to make up their now-41 point championship deficit. Slim and none.

The Jury’s Still Out:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Most of NASCAR Nation has Junior on their “winners” list after a third-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway. But Earnhardt’s podium finish only looks good if you squint your eyes tight and ignore how it came about. Earnhardt’s AMP/National Guard Chevrolet ran between 12th and 17th place for most of the afternoon Monday, and surged into the Top-10 only after superior fuel mileage allowed him to race all-out against opponents who were nursing their cars around the 1.5-mile tri-oval at half throttle, in fuel conservation mode. He was sixth with two laps to go, then passed three cars on the final lap as their engines sputtered dry. Earnhardt outlasted them yesterday, he’ll have to outrun them to win the championship.

Jimmie Johnson – The five-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was in typical Chase form Monday, leading for a number of laps and positioning himself for a Top-3 finish until his fuel cell ran uncharacteristically dry, one mile too soon. Johnson sputtered home 10th, losing two positions in the title chase in the process. He now stands 16 points behind Harvick in the Chase for the Sprint Cup; a gap he can easily erase by continuing to run the way he did yesterday.

Carl Edwards – Edwards' Aflac Ford probably finished a few positions better than it deserved Monday. After all, keeping the engine running all the way to the finish pays dividends. Edwards was a Top-10 driver for much of the day, and while he never showed the ability to contend for the win, sometimes it’s enough to simply avoid disaster. A steady fourth-place showing will keep Edwards in the running for another week and keep his 2011 championship hopes alive.

Kurt Busch – The Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver was almost certainly disappointed with his sixth-place finish Monday, after running at (or near) the front of the pack all day. He led a race-high 64 laps, but wasn’t at his best when the chips were down at the end. For now, a Top-10 finish will keep him solidly in the championship hunt, just 11 points behind with nine races to go.

Brad Keselowski – “Bad Brad” had a long stint as leader of Monday’s race, but even while he paced the field, you never got the feeling he was actually capable of winning. He hung around the Top-10 for most of the day, however, and took advantage of superior fuel mileage to outlast his way to a fifth-place finish. He now stands sixth in points (-14 to Harvick) and will live to fight another day.

Ryan Newman – Newman was near the front of the pack all day at Chicagoland. Not at the front, necessarily, but near it. His US Army Medicine Chevrolet did what it has done so many times this season, showing signs of brilliance without ever truly cashing in at Crunch Time. His eighth-place finish leaves him seventh in points – 14 behind Harvick – heading to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track he dominated in July en route to his only win of the season.

Stewart May Be Title Worthy, After All

Less than a week ago, Tony Stewart declared himself incapable of winning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Limping into the Chase as the number nine seed; Stewart was one of only two drivers – along with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – who entered the 10-race Chase without a race win. His typical midsummer surge never materialized, and with only three Top-5 finishes all year, he said publically what many observers had long ago decided; that 2011 was not his year.

Now, both Stewart and his fans may have to change their ways of thinking.

A win in Monday’s rain-delayed GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway put Stewart back on the winning track, snapping a personal 32-race winless streak and catapulting him from ninth to second in the championship standings, just seven back of leader Kevin Harvick. It continued a mini-hot streak that has seen the former Sprint Cup Series champion finish third, seventh and first in his last three starts, and set the stage for what could be one of the most unlikely championship bids in recent history.

“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year,” admitted Stewart yesterday. “We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year that we let get away from us, (but) I didn’t honestly know going into the race... that we had a car as good as we needed to win today.”

He immediately improved his 26th-place starting spot, slashing a path into the Top-20 before a mandatory, Lap 30 competition caution flag flew. “It didn’t take long to figure out that we were pretty solid,” said Stewart, who kept Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and others at arm’s reach -- while simultaneously conserving fuel -- over the decisive final 50 laps. He led four times for a total of 35 laps en route to the 40th Sprint Cup victory of his career, then insisted that one win does not a title contender make.

“Today doesn’t change my mind,” claimed Stewart after the race. “But the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it. … We’ve got a long way to go.”

The next step in Stewart’s “long way” to the championship comes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he and Stewart Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman dominated in mid-July. Newman and Stewart qualified and finished one-two in the “Lenox Industrial Tools 301,” with Newman carrying the checkered flag on what his teammate and employer called “a perfect weekend.”

With a burst of newfound momentum and three consecutive Top-7 finishes in hand, NASCAR’s purest streak shooter finally seems to have found his touch. Past history shows that when Stewart gets on a roll, the checkered flags can come in bunches, and with eight of his fellow Chase competitors stumbling badly at Chicagoland, Stewart’s new hot streak could not come at a better time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

New Sponsor For Earnhardt In 2012

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will have a new sponsor next season. Sort of.
PepsiCo is expected to announce this week that it will phase out its AMP Energy brand, which has backed Earnhardt as either major or associate sponsor in a total of 20 races this season. The company’s Diet Mountain Dew brand will replace Amp as sponsor of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in a total of 16 races next season; the final year of PepsiCo’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports.

Mountain Dew brand manager George Coxtold Sports Business Journal this week that the move “is really about opportunity. With Dew, Dale and NASCAR, there’s this awesome marriage. Dale is the embodiment of the person we’re trying to target with Diet Dew. We wanted to tap into the equity Dew has in NASCAR and put it into overdrive with Dale.” Hendrick Motorsports is expected to unveil Earnhardt’s new #88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet this week, with the car slated to turn its first competitive laps in Speedweeks 2012 at Daytona International Speedway.

Amp’s sponsorship with Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt dates back to 2007, when the third-generation NASCAR driver left his family-owned team to drive for longtime friend and mentor Rick Hendrick. The deal is reportedly worth more than $25 million per year, and when combined with a companion sponsorship from the National Guard, Earnhardt is believed to add more than $40 million per annum to the Hendrick Motorsports financial coffers.

Once the fifth-largest brand in the crowded energy drink market, Amp has seen its market share diminish recently. Amp has failed to make major inroads against Red Bull, Monster Energy and Rockstar, which account for more than two-thirds of all U.S. energy drink sales. Amp rose from fifth to fourth nationally during its time with Earnhardt -- third in most NASCAR markets – but generated an estimated $234 million in sales last year; still far behind the leading players in the booming, $6 billion per year energy drink market. Those numbers led PepsiCo to re-evaluate AMP’s NASCAR involvement, and to the decision to sift focus to its Diet Mountain Dew brand, which is more popular with younger consumers. Amp will reportedly be re-branded as an energy drink for older consumers.

Cox said market research proves that NASCAR fans remain loyal consumers of products that are involved in the sport. “We know from various studies and research that race fans are 2.5 times more likely to reach for Amp than the typical consumer,” he said. “The brand really made a place for itself within the sport, and with Dale.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Stenhouse Could Drive For Woods Next Season

Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Len Wood says a decision will be made in the next few weeks about whether Trevor Bayne will return to the legendary #21 Sprint Cup Series Ford next season, or be replaced by current NASCAR Nationwide Series point leader Ricky Stenhouse.

“If I had to say right now, I would say it would be that guy,” said Wood, pointing to Bayne’s name on the roof of the #21 Quick Lane Tire and Auto Ford Fusion in the garage at Chicagoland Speedway. “He’s done an amazing job for us this season, and we’d love to have him back. But it’s all up to Ford Motor Company and the sponsors.”

Wood called this year’s Daytona 500 champion, “a pleasure to work with,” and said their upset win in the 2011 season opener energized the team’s fan base. “It brought us a bunch of new fans, and also got the older, 1960s and `70s-era fans pretty pumped up.” It did not, however, bring any additional sponsorship to the table, preventing the team from expanding its limited schedule of events. Wood said he expects to run a similar number of races next season, with “at least 12 and maybe as many as 18” events on the schedule. “If I tell you 12 (races) and it ends up being 18, that’s great,” he said. “Right now, though, I’ll just say 12.”

He said a decision on who will steer the #21 Ford next season will be made by Ford Motor Company and Roush Fenway Racing, which whom the Woods have a longstanding technical alliance. “We’ll probably have a conversation about that with (RFR President) Steve Newmark in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “We don’t necessarily need a decision right away, but more lead time is always better.” He added that Wood Brothers Racing is the perfect place for Roush and FoMoCo to groom young drivers, saying, “Running a part-time schedule like we do, if a kid creases up a few door panels, it’s not that big a deal.”