North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the racetracks that was on the very first schedule for the fledgling sanctioning body known as NASCAR in 1949. There were eight tracks on the schedule then, but only two — Wilkesboro and Martinsville — are still in existence. Unfortunately, that number has shrunk to one since the temporary closing of North Wilkesboro became permanent on June 30. Speedway Associates, the track’s ownership group, announced it was unable to arrange further financial backing to run the track and abandoned the property less than a year after reopening its gates to racing after 14 years of silence.
The effort to restore North Wilkesboro has been a labor of love from so many people from not only Wilkes County, but all over the country — and even outside of the United States. People traveled from as far as British Columbia, Canada, to participate in races at the rejuvenated speedway last year. There was no question that the place was in no shape to host a race when the keys were handed over to Speedway Associates. While the racing surface was ready to go after a dousing of weed killer, there was a lot more work necessary to make the remainder of the facility race-ready.
After many gallons of paint, plumbing, metal work, carpentry and general blood, sweat and tears, the track held its first race on Labor Day weekend in 2010. The first driver to return to the unique Victory Lane on top of Wilkesboro’s Media Center was Mack Little, who won the Limited Late Model race. Chase Elliott then won the PASS race to take the first major touring series win at the track since 1996.
That first weekend’s events brought memories flooding back to the racing die-hards who traveled to Wilkesboro, despite the fact that many upgrades were still needed to return the historic facility to its former glory. Looking around the track and seeing faded and chipped Winston, First Union and Holly Farms signs instantly brought back visions of everyone from Lee Petty to Jeff Gordon circling the aged pavement.
As more renovations were completed over the next few months, the place looked fresher and more modern, while still possessing the historic feel similar to the air around Martinsville or Indianapolis. The crowds were bigger for every race and the track seemed to be building momentum but, unfortunately, there was an undercurrent behind the scenes that would eventually cause all of the effort to come to a screeching halt, while breaking the hearts of everyone involved in its resurrection.
After “THE RACE” for the PASS cars took place in April, funds started to run thin. As the June race date for the UARA Series drew closer, the insurance premium on the track was coming due and there wasn’t enough money to make the payment. The powers-that-be at Speedway Associates were forced to make the decision to close the track until more funding could be obtained. The reality began to set in that unless corporate partners stepped forward to assist in the revitalization effort, the resources just weren’t available to bring the track back.
When the idea of revitalizing the track was originally floated by the principals of Speedway Associates, it was promised some local corporate involvement in the process of restoring the complex to viability — but when the rubber hit the track the donations never arrived. While volunteer labor got the track back to a serviceable level, there was a greater need that only materials — or cold hard cash — could fix.
After the track was closed, the management group set out to try and get an infusion of capital to jumpstart the project before the end of June. The word was that there were three different sources of funding that were seriously interested in putting some money into the track, and it was only a matter of picking the best one and having lawyers work out the legal wranglings. Once that was all hammered out, the racing could continue as the track’s facelift made it into a modern facility. Whether that was truly the case or just an effort to keep the legion of volunteers encouraged, it never materialized.
As June 30 rolled around, there wasn’t any deal. The choice of funding turned out to be an empty tin cup and the people making the decisions threw in the towel. What started with so much promise, after so many fits and starts and empty promises, turned out to be the reality check that so many never again wanted to face.
There isn’t one answer when looking at what would have made North Wilkesboro’s resurrection work, but there is certainly some blame to go around for why it didn’t. The businesses in the Wilkes County area and around the country should have jumped on board to make this effort a success. The track has the potential to be a media darling in a time when NASCAR continues to turn its back on its roots. With the right companies putting their name on the walls and billboards around the track, the races would have likely been picked up by television and returned their investment many times over.
Instead, some of the larger local companies are rumored to have made promises to the management group only to back out when the heat was turned up. If the local companies did back out they should be ashamed. But even if they did not, they should be embarrassed for not getting behind the efforts when the local economy is so depressed — and has been since the last Cup cars turned laps in anger around the track.
Bruton Smith and the folks at Speedway Motorsports, Inc. are confusingly complicit in this failure. For whatever reason, SMI maintains that it wants $12 million for the facility — the price Smith paid for it some 15 years ago. The purchase price then included two Cup Series, one or two Nationwide and one Truck Series date. Most economic “experts” maintain that a Cup date is worth $4 million, while a Nationwide or Truck race is in the $1 million range. Two Cup visits and a pair of support-series dates would account for 10 of the $12 million paid for the track. Add to the fact that those dates are no longer there as well as the 14 years of deterioration without even routine maintenance being performed, and there is at least another million dollars that has been wiped out of the facility.
The basic math would make the track’s worth in the $1 million range — a far cry from the $12 million that SMI is so adamant about receiving. There is no one that is going to pay that price for a few acres of land in Wilkes County, N.C., let alone a plot of land that has a racetrack on it that would have to be razed in order to build another business on them.
The continuous demand for that exorbitant amount of money for the track is certainly keeping shrewd businessmen from putting money into the property. An infusion of $10-15 million would have the track up to the standards of today’s premier facilities. Unfortunately, no one in their right mind is going to put that amount of money into a track when the specter of an additional $12 million payout is looming.
Why the leaders at SMI will not budge off of that asking price is still a mystery. There must be some benefit to having a business property sit idle instead of receiving a fair market price for it — no one at the company is explaining its reasoning. Perhaps SMI will actually come in and try to do something with the track now that it has proven successful races can still be held there. Fans of the track can only hope.
The other large amount of blame for the track’s failure goes to the fans who complained about the track being closed in 1996 (and since), but did not support it with their attendance when racing returned. The 2010 Labor Day race drew roughly five- to seven-thousand people, despite seating for 40,000. More fans turned out to the next race weekend, but nowhere near the capacity of the track.
There is a cry from the fan base every time a race track is closed or dates are taken away from historic tracks around the country — especially in the Southeast — but those same fans fail to support said tracks when they attempt to rise again. Exhibit A is North Carolina Motor Speedway — a.k.a. Rockingham — which had just over 500 people show up for its UARA/Pro Cup double-header race earlier this season.
Five hundred people.
The folks trying to make a success out of Rockingham can’t be blamed for giving up, and the same is true at North Wilkesboro. Fourteen years of neglect didn’t hurt the racetrack as much as Smith would like you to believe, but it took a huge toll on the rest of the facility. The limited number of suites are in drastic need of upgrades and the restrooms could use some modernization, to say the least. The fans are the ones who can make those upgrades possible by showing up in droves and supporting the races that are held. But to this point, that has not happened.
The racing at North Wilkesboro was great when it was on the Cup schedule and it was just as great when it returned last year. The track is unique and history oozes from every pore of the facility from the moment a fan walks through the gate. It is a living piece of NASCAR’s history that needs to be preserved. And everyone needs to embrace the efforts to make that happen.
Quaker State 400 Location: Sparta, Ky. Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 14°; Banking/Tri-oval: 8°; Banking/Backstretch: 4° Race Length: 400 miles/267 laps 2010 Winners: None (Inaugural Cup race)
From the Spotter’s Stand
It was a long and winding road with speed bumps and yield signs at every turn, but Kentucky Speedway finally has a spot on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.
The 1.5-mile track is centrally located in Sparta, Ky. — roughly halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati — and is the first new track added to the Cup circuit since Chicagoland and Kansas in 2001.
“Racing fans, I don’t think you’ll find an area of the United States that is more ready than this one is,” said Speedway Motorsports CEO and Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith, during his official announcement. “Go back and look at how many fans we’ve had here for Nationwide, Trucks, and you’ll see what we can do.”
Since opening in 2000, Kentucky Speedway has an excellent track record and a strong fan base, drawing as many as 70,000 for Nationwide and Truck events.
A $40 million expansion is underway to prepare for the July 9 Cup race. The ambitious plan calls for an increased capacity to an estimated 116,000 as well as across-the-board upgrades that will include moving pit road closer to both the track and stands. But after the facility fought to secure a Cup race for a solid decade, it will be worth every penny once the green flag finally drops on the 400-mile race this summer.
In 2005, track co-founder Jerry Carroll sued NASCAR for violation of antitrust laws in an effort to acquire a Cup race for Kentucky Speedway — a date he claims was promised him by the France family. When the case was thrown out in 2008, Carroll sold the tri-oval track to Smith, whose company also owns seven other tracks on the Cup schedule. After further legal wrangling, Smith moved an existing date from Atlanta Motor Speedway to Kentucky, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Normally when a new track comes onto the circuit it takes a while to figure out, but Kentucky shouldn’t be that much of an unknown for two reasons: One, because it’s built in the classic ‘cookie cutter’ mode where aero and downforce are keys. And two, because there are plenty of notes available from the Nationwide races. The organizations that run full Nationwide teams — Gibbs, Roush and Childress through Harvick’s operation — will be the ones that start with a leg up. That said, it won’t take the others to long to figure out the nuances.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to lean towards Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards due to their experience in the Nationwide Series. Pretty Solid Pick: Joey Logano has three straight NNS wins here. We’ll see if it translates. Good Sleeper Pick: Not really a sleeper, but the 48 team usually adapts quicker than most. Runs on Seven Cylinders: See the Insider Tip and act accordingly. Insider Tip: It’s your typical 1.5-mile track. Look to Kansas and Chicago for an accurate race preview.
Classic Moments at Kentucky
It’s an inauspicious start for NASCAR at the sparkling new Kentucky Speedway on June 17, 2000.
Bryan Reffner leads the 36-truck field to green, but a wreck on the first lap quickly slows the field. Greg Biffle battles Reffner throughout the race, leading 53 laps to Reffner’s 50.
A lengthy rain delay halts the action, forcing ESPN to drop its coverage of the event and resume programming.
Kurt Busch, in his rookie campaign, leads 12 laps but crashes hard with 44 laps remaining, and it’s his Roush Racing teammate, Biffle, whose No. 50 Grainger Ford is dialed in down the stretch, as he leads the final 42 laps to win.
Biffle goes on to win the Trucks Series title, while Busch finishes second.
1. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s 2011 season is beginning to resemble his 2010 campaign. The new points leader rides consistency to the top spot with a few wins thrown in for good measure.
2. Kyle Busch Not to hammer the “consistency” theme into the ground, but if there is such a thing as a “new” Kyle Busch, that’s what it’s being defined by.
3. Kurt Busch Recovered from a late-race accident at Daytona to notch his seventh consecutive top-15 finish. Sits only 16 points out of the lead in the championship standings, to boot.
4. Carl Edwards Runs of fifth and third are offset by an ugly pair of 37th-place showings for Edwards in the last four events. Every team has a slump of some size, and if this is the worst the 99 has coming, it isn’t that bad.
5. Matt Kenseth Hendrick Motorsports should look to the Kenseth/David Ragan execution of team orders the next time the circuit hits a plate track.
6. Jeff Gordon It was mentioned that Gordon’s job was to push Mark Martin to victory at Daytona. However, by the end of the night, it looked like an every-man-for-himself scenario.
7. Jimmie Johnson Oh, to be a fly on the wall at Hendrick Motorsports’ weekly competition meeting. I wonder how Chad Knaus is going to explain that “dump the teammate and pit by ourselves” strategy.
8. Denny Hamlin Went from second to 13th during the green-white-checker finale at Daytona. And did anyone else find his choice of drafting partner — Chevy’s Ryan Newman — peculiar?
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looked to be a Chase lock just one month ago, but a three-race slide is raising doubts. A win would go a long way towards securing a playoff bid.
10. Clint Bowyer For as good as Bowyer is at Talladega, he can’t seem to catch a break in Daytona. Like Earnhardt, a win would go a long way for a driver squarely on the Chase bubble.
11. Tony Stewart Couldn’t make it four wins in Daytona’s July event. Settled for 11th instead.
12. Paul Menard Being Harvick’s bitc … er, drafting buddy at Daytona pays off to the tune of an eighth-place run.
13. Brad Keselowski David Ragan’s win may have hurt BK’s Chase chances but this team is trending in the right direction.
14. Joey Logano Worked well with Kasey Kahne to scratch and claw his way to a third-place showing at DIS. Then he smiled real big.
15. Ryan Newman From the lead to 23rd in the blink of two green-white-checker restarts. And Newman was the driver saying he felt he had more control over his own destiny with the two-car drafts.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan
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The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been the year of first-time winners. Trevor Bayne stunned the sport with an unlikely win in the Daytona 500. Regan Smith followed suit at Darlington in Southern 500, and in the circuit’s return trip to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400, David Ragan celebrated his first career Cup win on the Fourth of July weekend.
Ragan’s win was a dose of redemption at the speedway where a late-race penalty cost him a shot at a Daytona 500 win just five months earlier. In that race, Ragan led the field to a green-white-checker restart. However, he changed lanes prior to crossing the start/finish line in an attempt to draft with Bayne. The resulting pass-through penalty dropped him from the lead to a heart-breaking 14th-place showing.
Saturday’s mid-summer classic at Daytona took on many of the same characteristics as the February edition, with two-car drafting and an overtime finish highlighting the evening. The first green-white-checker attempt came when NASCAR threw a caution flag with three laps to go when Jeff Gordon slid sideways in Turn 4, although he saved the car and no others were damaged.
The tandem of Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin led Ragan and teammate Matt Kenseth to the green. Ragan and Kenseth nosed into the lead as nearly a dozen cars wrecked coming out of Turn 2, dashing the hopes of Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, among others.
Ragan and Kenseth led the pack of survivors to green for the second green-white-checker finish. On this try, the field made it one and a half laps before the wrecking started again. Five cars were collected in an accident in Turn 3, while another crash broke out involving eight cars as the pack entered the tri-oval with the checkered flag in the air.
Through it all, Kenseth never left Ragan’s bumper, and the duo crossed the finish line first and second, edging Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne, who finished third and fourth.
“We made a pact with our teammate, Matt Kenseth, that we’re going to work together through thick or thin,” Ragan said. “I was a little worried about that, too. Sometimes falling to the back and to the front, you get jammed up throughout the race, so I didn't know if that was the right decision or not. But bottom line, our car was fast. That's what wins these races. You've got to have luck, you've got to have pit stops and all that stuff goes into effect. But you've got to have a fast car, and our UPS Ford was fast.”
The teammates did work together through thick and thin, and when they found themselves nose-to-tail coming to the checkers with the field in their rearview mirrors, they remained in line.
“If I would have made a move on David, Joey (Logano) would have passed us both or we all would have wrecked or something — something would have happened,” Kenseth said. “So when I came off (turn) four, and I looked to see where Joey was, I could see he had good speed. I could see he was being pushed. Me and David were on the same radio and I wasn't standing on the yellow line. I'm going to keep pushing you. I'm not going to leave you and try to pass you, because I knew that one of us weren't going to win.”
Carl Edwards lost the points lead after an accident on lap 24 relegated him to a 37th-place finish. Kevin Harvick, who finished seventh, inherited the lead in the championship standings, sitting five points ahead of Edwards. Ragan joins Hamlin as driver ranked 11th-20th with wins that could qualify them for the Chase via wild card slots that award race-winners.
As the sport gathers for its traditional version of the halfway mark — Daytona’s spectacle under the lights this Fourth of July weekend — the answer to that question, a lynchpin to its future direction remains increasingly unclear. From the season’s very first race, when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 only to fall off the grid ever since stock car racing has turned into a wishy-washy first date, so full of mixed messages you leave with no clue whether they like you or not.
Of course, in NASCAR’s defense it could say exactly the same thing about its fans. Attendance has been more up-and-down than your local Six Flags roller coaster: solid increases at places like Daytona, Charlotte and yes, even Fontana — not to mention a rare sellout coming at Kentucky — offset alarming losses at once-automatic sellout zones in Dover and Bristol. Ratings, up through the sport’s first 16 events, are only so because of a natural boost at both Daytona and Las Vegas; neither race had to deal with a giant pothole or the U.S. vs. Canada hockey game, respectively, from 2010. And while the sport’s target age group, men ages 18-49 are seemingly tilting upward for the first time in years, the time they spend at the track continues to dwindle. Walk through any infield sans Talladega and you’ll feel like you’re part of the Sahara Desert, not the 24/7 Friday-Sunday party it used to be.
Competition-wise, the races have taken on a bit of a familiar feel. NASCAR’s “fourth quarter” is almost always great — even the fuel mileage finishes have come attached with their own bit of specialty drama that keep people guessing until the final lap. But in the first three quarters (i.e., two-plus hours) too much “passing the time” instead of “passing cars” comes into play, combined with some aerodynamic issues that remain exacerbated — not eliminated — by the Car of Tomorrow. The new front ends give those vehicles greater identity, but that’s not enough. How can they do more?
At least fans will have a postseason fight to look forward to. Indeed, Sprint Cup’s Chase for the Championship appears to be a study based on equality. Carl Edwards leads, Jimmie Johnson is the slight favorite, but in reality the race is wide open. Johnson’s six-peat could be stymied by anyone from Kevin Harvick, to the cantankerous Kyle Busch to even a certain Most Popular Driver making noise. The problem is, for all the talk of “wild cards” and “wins,” the faces in the crowd remain the same. Barring an upset by Kansas victor Brad Keselowski, the Chase will have no first-time participants for the second year in a row.
So what about the new guys, you ask? After all, there is a “next generation” busting at the seams to get its chance. Bayne’s upset win is just one example of a trend, the ringleader within a handful of talented youngsters finally on the cusp of Sprint Cup success. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has won in the Nationwide Series, remaining perhaps the prohibitive favorite to take the season points title, while Justin Allgaier is right on his heels. Youngster Cole Whitt is second in Truck Series points, posting five top-10 finishes as a rookie while Austin Dillon sits comfortably in title contention as a sophomore. Yes, there’s even (cough, cough) a certain woman in a GoDaddy uniform that has been spotted running inside the top 5 in Nationwide Series events.
But here’s where the going gets tough: of those six, only Dillon and Danica Patrick are guaranteed a ride next season, neither one of which will be in Sprint Cup. With a limited number of options at the top level, contracting teams mean it’s more difficult than ever to give freshmen their chance to fit in. In fact, this year’s likely Rookie of the Year winner in Sprint Cup isn’t the Daytona champ but a driver, Andy Lally, whose team’s limited resources have left him with one lead-lap finish in 13 races. Hardly a way to show up on the radar screen, right?
Lally’s not alone in his struggle for sponsorship, though, which is a telling stat in the biggest public relations fight NASCAR’s had on its hands in years. It makes Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch look like babies fighting over a lollipop by comparison (and maybe they are… but that’s a story for another day). For years, the sport has blamed its shrinking starting grids, now deluged with the disease of start-and-parkers, on a sagging economy. “Companies can’t spend money,” was the woe-is-me line of the day, a philosophy with a “do nothing” strategy attached for this, too, shall pass. One can understand why they think that — after all, Kyle Busch, according to Joyce Julius and Associates, generated $28.4 million in exposure for his sponsors during the first third of the season alone. Combine that with underdog success stories, from Regan Smith/Furniture Row’s single-car triumph at Darlington to Brian Keselowski’s shocking Daytona 500 start remind corporate America that they, no matter the level of advertising budget available, can cash in for a bargain price.
So why isn’t corporate America buying it? In just the past two weeks alone, two financially healthy companies — Red Bull and Crown Royal — have indicated they’ll cut NASCAR funding from teams effective at the end of the season. Others, like Home Depot and Cheerios, are rumored to be cutting back, leaving financial failure making its way through the poor and up towards the rich. The reasons could be variable, from owners trying to charge too much money to executives simply putting their foot down and believing the sport is past its prime. Whatever the answer, the right people need to find it because these teams and their employees can’t run without funding; and as owners drop like flies, it’s not a prudent long-term approach to let the equivalent of five New York Yankees – Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Roger Penske – either own or supply chassis and engines to the entire grid.
See why is the half-full/half-empty question so hard to answer? No wonder Daytona executives are working overtime these days. With their due diligence, plus the right personnel shifts the sport appears closer than ever to turning a corner. But, as we’ve learned with everyone from Mauricia Grant to Jeremy Mayfield, just one minor incident is all it takes to tip the scales.
This time, the NASCAR brass better hope it tips their way.
From the Spotter’s Stand
It may have been the greatest upset in stock car racing history — certainly it was the most unexpected result (with apologies to Tiny Lund) in the storied history of the Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne’s unlikely win in February’s Daytona 500 driving the Wood Brothers Ford remains the feel-good story of the year in NASCAR. And it proved that Daytona and Talladega are still the most unpredictable tracks on the circuit.
Keep a close eye on Kurt Busch this weekend. He’s never won a point-paying plate race, but he’d never won a road course event, either … until last weekend. Red hot at the moment, Busch was the pre-race favorite at the beach leading up to the 500 in February. Busch won the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel leading up to the big show, then looked to be on his way to victory until losing momentum entering Turn 3 of the final lap and finishing fifth. Expect him to be just as strong on Saturday evening.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Daytona typically conjures images of speed, and with a repaved surface, that’s what it’s going to take to win — that and a good drafting partner. Although the track won’t lose grip like it did on the old surface, it’s still a relatively narrow track, so drivers and spotter’s must be on their toes, this year more than ever before.
“Turn 2 has always been Calamity Corner, and it will be interesting to see if that remains the case. My guess is it will because of the tight confines off. The January test sessions were big for everyone this year, learning new characteristics that could make a difference.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Whoever gets the push at the end. We’ll say Kevin Harvick. Pretty Solid Pick: Whoever gets the push in the second pack at the end. We’ll say Kurt Busch. Good Sleeper Pick: This could go a lot of different ways. How about David Ragan? Runs on Seven Cylinders: His 500 win in 2008 aside, Ryan Newman hasn’t had much luck here. Insider Tip: Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a good track record at Daytona, he is not a fan of the “tandem drafting” that has replaced the big 30-car packs.
Classic Moments at Daytona
In arguably the event’s most compelling storybook ending, Tiny Lund wins the 1963 installment of the Daytona 500 in relief of an injured Marvin Panch.
Days before the 500, Panch is severely burned in an accident while testing a Maserati for the race that today is known as the Rolex 24. Lund, in Daytona looking for a ride, sees the violent crash and rushes to the car, pulling Panch out seconds before the fuel tank explodes.
Lund is given Panch’s seat in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and by using only one set of tires throughout the 500 — and pitting one time fewer than his competitors — Lund takes the lead when Ned Jarrett runs out of gas with three laps to go. Despite running out of fuel on the final lap, Lund is able to notch his first career win.
1. Carl Edwards Edwards and crew did what a championship-laden team is supposed to do as it continues to build steam: Stay above the fray and bring it home clean with a top-3 finish.
2. Kurt Busch Speaking of staying above the fray, Busch’s car and strategy at Infineon were so spot-on, he won by keeping the mayhem in his rearview mirror.
3. Kyle Busch Did Kyle Busch really get out of his car at Infineon, walk over to Kevin Harvick and shake his hand after the race?! Yep. The devil must be wearing a winter coat and shoveling snow.
4. Kevin Harvick The recipient of Busch’s gratitude admitted to being somewhat confused by the gesture, saying on Twitter that it was “bizarre.” He then went on to say the feud was not over.
5. Jimmie Johnson And then there is Johnson, quietly running seventh on the road and staying well within striking distance. His lone win this season came on a plate track, and that’s where they’re heading next.
6. Jeff Gordon Gordon and the 24 bunch are tough to figure. A win at Pocono was followed by a pedestrian 17th in Michigan. Then they ran second in Sonoma. Good luck pinning them down.
7. Matt Kenseth Overcame a couple on-track incidents at Infineon to finish 14th, which must feel like a win for Kenseth, who has never taken to the road courses.
8. Denny Hamlin Hamlin said he got “‘Dinger’d” at Infineon, which is NASCAR-speak for paying the price for racing too close to AJ Allmendinger.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK Dale, that’s two sub-par showings in a row that have dropped you to seventh in the standings ... let’s not give Junior Nation a reason to be suicidal.
10. Clint Bowyer Although he has no wins at Daytona, he leads everyone on the Sprint Cup circuit not named Trevor Bayne with a 13.2-place average finish on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
11. Tony Stewart The king of NASCAR hypocrisy complained about drivers racing like idiots, then blatantly spun Brian Vickers in front of the field. Shades of Daytona '06.
12. Ryan Newman At this rate, Newman is a bump-draft-gone-wrong from losing 10th place in the point standings.
13. Greg Biffle The potential is there for the 16 team, the results — for some reason — are not.
14. Brad Keselowski Juan Pablo Montoya finally messed with the wrong man on Sunday ... and paid the price.
15. Paul Menard You heard it here first: Paul Menard could very well win the Coke Zero 400 this weekend.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr.
With news that Red Bull Racing is ending it’s five-year run in the Sprint Cup Series at season’s end, the Chase chatter that typically becomes the matter of obsession during NASCAR’s Summer Stretch will no doubt take a back seat to the Silly Season speculation that is now running rampant through the garage area.
While Red Bull has said it is leaving the series as a team, that is not to say it will not stick around as a sponsor in some capacity. It’s a situation that Team Red Bull General Manager and Vice President Jay Frye has found himself in before, with what was the MB2/MBV Racing teams from the late 1990s-2006. Sponsor Valvoline wanted to have an ownership stake in the series, and essentially made the worst moves possible in the process by first abandoning longtime driver Mark Martin in 2001, and then opting to not continue its association with Johnny Benson Jr. following the ’03 season. It eventually led to the demise of the team, and its acquisition by real estate developer Bobby Ginn — which later merged with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Rumor has it that Red Bull all but issued its PIN number to Carl Edwards in a Hail Mary effort to land the most sought-after free agent in NASCAR, a deal that obviously never materialized. Toyota still wants to keep the current Red Bull team in the fold, having made the leap into Sprint Cup with the automaker in 2007.
While the Red Bull situation will likely be decided over the course of the next few months as inventors are lined up to keep the struggling boat afloat, the main issue at hand will be if Edwards decides whether to remain with Roush Fenway Racing and the Ford Motor Company, which plucked him from relative obscurity and thrust him into the forefront of motorsports. And Edwards has always been a loyal and vocal supporter of the Blue Oval, more so than virtually any driver has been to a car company since the late Dale Earnhardt to Chevrolet.
Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs tried to defuse the rumors of a JGR push for Edwards in a fourth car, saying, “We learned over the years, probably when we started the 11 car, (that) unless you have all those parts together — a sponsor, the right driver and team — don't do it.
"We're not in any hurry to do it. Carl is a gifted driver. He's doing great where he is. From our standpoint, we're going to focus on Denny (Hamlin), Joey (Logano) and Kyle (Busch). When we get that going right, we can worry about other stuff in the future (a fourth team). Right now that's all we're kind of focused on."
Hmm. Well, words tend to mean things. That’s not to say that Edwards would be the right fit for a fourth team specifically, but what about the third JGR car? In this case, the third wheel has become the No. 20 team. Logano has had a bit of a learning curve to overcome on the Sprint Cup side of things, and has not produced as quickly or with the quantity of success that teammates Busch and Hamlin have. Might Logano be the odd man out? After all, Home Depot hasn’t exactly gotten much bang for its buck since Tony Stewart’s tenure with the team from 1999-2008. And to rub salt in the wound, Jimmie Johnson has been busy winning five straight titles with rival Lowe’s Home Improvement as the primary sponsor.
Gibbs went on to say that Logano was not going anywhere in 2012. Granted, similar statements were made in 2008 when Stewart was rumored to be looking elsewhere, although the circumstances for his departure were drastically different.
So what’s to believe and who may end up where?
I think the Red Bull operation stays afloat and ultimately survives — albeit under a different name. If the rumored Frye/Mark Martin connection comes to fruition, it would be a potent combination, remencient of the Ginn Racing venture of 2007 that paired Red Bull principles Frye and Ryan Pemberton with Martin. The team was leading the points four races into the season with Martin on a part-time schedule and would have won the Daytona 500 had NASCAR kept its practice of throwing caution flags when the entire field had wrecked and cars were flipping upside down and on fire.
One thing Red Bull has always lacked is veteran leadership in the driver department, the type of stabilizing force that Martin provided during his near two-decade tenure at Roush, the Ginn/DEI venture and even at Hendrick Motorsports. Being a two-car operation means that a second driver would be needed to fill the other seat. Virtually anytime Martin has been asked this year to evaluate or comment upon up-and-coming talent, one name continues to top his list: Cole Whitt. Martin speaks as often and as highly of the development driver as he did of Logano prior to his arrival in the NASCAR ranks. In nine Truck Series starts this year, Whitt has a pole at Darlington and five top 10s, including a second at Dover and a third-place effort at Charlotte. In his past roles of mentoring and splitting seat time with drivers such as Regan Smith, Aric Almirola and even Danica Patrick, the results have been impressive and quantifiable.
If Logano were to fall out of favor at JGR, pairing him with the driver in Martin who discovered and originally wanted him as a replacement in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford might not be a bad thing either.
Will Edwards actually leave Roush Fenway Racing? While it makes for great media fodder, I don’t really see the upside. UPS wants Carl, Aflac wants Carl, Ford wants Carl … and that’s not a bad thing when you’re negotiating a new contract. While there really is no clear leader at Roush Fenway Racing — other than Jack Roush — Edwards seems to have positioned himself to be just a step ahead of teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. By going to JGR, he would form a formidable foursome with Busch, Hamlin, and Logano (assuming he remains), but would it put him in any better of a position to win than now? Unlikely, at best.
Edwards is as savvy with the business side of racing as he is the performance portion, and is smartly working to find the best long-term deal. After all, these aren’t exactly stable economic times, and there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that the glory days of bountiful sponsorship of the early- and mid-1990s is going to materialize anytime soon. Roush turned 69 years-old in April, and has had many a brush with mortality in recent years, bringing into question the succession plan and sustainability of his race teams when the Cat does, indeed, hang up his hat.
Another thing to keep in mind regarding sponsorship at Roush Fenway is that the only deal that has been shored up so far is with 3M’s extension with Biffle’s No. 16 team. UPS is still waiting in the wings, and Crown Royal’s sponsorship has not yet been finalized. Fourth driver David Ragan is clearly not long for what once was the flagship No. 6 car, so feel free to pencil in Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for that seat in 2012. Ford is serious about racing again and has the funds to do it now that it is the most profitable car company in Detroit — and became that way without a dime of taxpayer funding. This bodes well for Edwards, not so much for Ragan.
Perhaps the most overlooked driver in all of this speculation is the one whose name popped up during the Red Bull drama: Clint Bowyer.
His current sponsor, General Mills, has taken quite a liking to its driver, though it was noted that Red Bull was very far down the line into negotiations with Bowyer prior to the announcement that they were throwing in the towel on NASCAR. Why Bowyer would bolt from Richard Childress Racing is a bit confusing. Last season, his No. 33 RCR team was championship material until the now-infamous tow truck tango cost him 150 points and any chance of competition for the Sprint Cup. Perhaps some lingering bitterness from first being bounced from the No. 07 car to make room for Casey Mears back in 2009 — and then having his team swapped with Kevin Harvick’s after said fine — is manifesting itself.
Then, of course, there is the 400-pound gorilla in the room — or more specifically, the 102-pound face of open wheel racing that will soon be spending a significant amount of time in Charlotte: Danica Patrick. When it is finally announced that 2012 will be Patrick’s first full year of NASCAR racing in a Nationwide Series entry, the idea is that Patrick would also make a handful of Cup starts — think Daytona, Indianapolis, Charlotte and Phoenix. But for what team will she bring a plethora of sponsorship dollars?
Patrick’s connection with JR Motorsports would give her the inside line to virtually any Chevrolet team, however when the bidding begins for real, it will be dollar signs that ultimately determine where she ends up. With the recent rumors that Andretti Autosport (Patrick’s current Indy Car Series team) would entertain entry to NASCAR, it will add additional ethanol to the fire.
Silly Season took a bit of a breather last year, but has returned full-force in 2011. There are several high-profile rides available, a solid team on the threshold of becoming a top tier team on the brink and high-dollar sponsors that have yet to commit for the future. But while the splashy headlines and rumor-mongering make for entertaining speculation, it’s easy to overlook the sad prospect that as many as 200 people could lose their jobs if the eye of the Silly Season storm — the future of Red Bull Racing — takes a disastrous turn.
The Infineon Raceway’s annual NASCAR Sprint Cup date has seen its share of aggression the last few seasons. And Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 was no different, with a number of flared tempers, paybacks and plenty of bent sheet metal. So how does one go about winning at the Sonoma, Ca. road course? Stay in front of the fray.
That’s exactly what Kurt Busch did, leading a race-high 76 of 110 laps en route to his first Sprint Cup Series road course win and his first victory of the season.
“We had to conserve our rear tires,” Busch said of his team’s strategy to make only two pit stops when many others made three. “Once we had enough fuel mileage to make it, I started to pick up my pace.
“(The car) allowed me to do everything at an ‘A’ level. There's times when you can be A-plus on forward drive off or on your gear ratios for saving mileage, then you would have to save on overall speed for your speed ratios. Then you have the turn left, turn right. My car gave me the ability to do all areas very well.”
A 19-lap green-flag run to conclude the race enabled Busch to pull away from the field and beat Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose to the finish by 2.685 seconds on the 1.99-mile, 12-turn course. And although the final dash to checkers was caution-free, the event was marred by a series of incidents on the winding layout.
The first major scrap occurred in the tight, hairpin Turn 11 when Tony Stewart turned Brian Vickers, which collected a number of cars. Though none appeared seriously damaged, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the worst of it, as his contact with a sideways Vickers knocked a hole in the radiator, eventually causing the engine of his No. 88 Chevy to expire.
Vickers enacted revenge late in the race, when he used his injured vehicle to dump Stewart in the same turn on lap 88, which brought out the final caution.
“I probably had it coming, because I dumped him earlier,” Stewart said. “But I dumped him because he was blocking, so if anyone wants to block all year that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
“(Tony) may not have noticed, but the 18 (Kyle Busch) was off the racetrack,” Vickers said of Stewart’s claim of blocking. “I was trying to avoid the 18 and I was on the inside of the car in front of me, so Tony was the least of my concern. But that’s what he felt it was and he sowed his oats and he reaped them.”
Juan Montoya had run-ins with a few drivers throughout the day, most notably Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, while attempting a late-race charge to the front with fresh tires.
“They just don’t give me any room,” Montoya said. “It’s hard when people don’t know how to race on road courses and they think they do.”
Kahne didn’t share Montoya’s assessment, saying, “Montoya just drove through me. Last year when his cars were really good and (his teammate) Jamie McMurray was the man (winning three races), Juan still couldn’t win a race. It shows what he can do in NASCAR anyways.”
After the Kahne incident, Montoya attempted to get by Keselowski. However, when it got physical, Keselowski did not wait to be the victim.
“The body language of Juan’s car said he was going to wreck me,” Keselowski said. “I just made sure that didn’t happen.”
As a result of all the contact, Kahne was relegated to a 20th-place finish, while Montoya was 22nd. Keselowski survived to post a solid 10th-place showing.
Edwards increased his championship lead to 25 over seventh-place finisher Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson sits third, 33 points back, and one point ahead of Kurt Busch. Earnhardt suffered the worst points-hit, falling from third to seventh, 65 points out, after finishing 41st with the blown engine.