Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The "Luck" of Jimmie Johnson - A Response to Kevin Harvick and a "Horseshoe" in the posterior

Good gracious ... Kevin Harvick is the classic "happy" self he has always been. If he can't find something good about which to complain, he can't say anything good at all. Harvick, seriously, get over yourself when it comes to your "relationship" to Jimmie Johnson. Face facts - he's better than you are. You got lucky back in 2001, lest you forget, in winning in someone else's car (um, who could that be?!?) ... beating somebody in Atlanta named Jeff Gordon using a white 29 car ... but we fail to remember only 9 short years later that car belonged to Richard Childress and "the man" himself would have been driving it if you didn't get to take his place. Knock it off with the crap about being lucky ... you don't even know how lucky you were in 2001 to be the beneficiary of Dale Earnhardt's misfortune.

Nobody in NASCAR gets the chance to rest on their laurels forever, and nobody can be lucky for seven years in a row! Geesh, I am a Tony Stewart fan, I've been a NASCAR fan for the past two decades, I grew up loving Dale Earnhardt, and I love the racing I have seen so far in 2010. My god, 2009 was a snoozefest ... and, yes, seeing Jimmie Johnson win ad nauseum doesn't help. Do I begrudge his success? Are you crazy? Hendrick Motorsports is the product of team chemistry and exchange of ideas. Rick Hendrick himself saved the JJ-Chad Knaus dynasty only a few short years ago when it looked like it was going to fall apart.

The reality is this: luck is the result of good preparation. Chad Knaus is the best crew chief in NASCAR, period. Anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. The uncanny resemblance of Johnson-Knaus to Gordon-Evernham is just as obvious to me now as it was in 2002. Johnson was given - yes, given - Jeff Gordon's equipment heading into the 2002 season the YEAR AFTER Gordon himself won his last championship. Why? Hendrick and Gordon wanted Johnson to have every chance to succeed for sponsor Lowe's ... and, guess what, he has more than exceeded anybody's expectations. The last non-Johnson championship, if any fan still remembers back that far, was Tony Stewart in 2005. Oh, by the way, the *least* legitimate champion of the Chase era is still the first one - Kurt Busch, 2004. Johnson could have won that year (if not his teammate Gordon, who perpetually is stuck on his now very unlucky four titles).

JJ has four titles, three to me for this man are undisputably his. Don't play the revisionist history game of "well, [fill-in-the-blank] should have won in [this year] if not for the [expletive] Chase" ... JJ earned what he did playing by the rules he was given. As they like to say ... Don't hate the driver, hate the game. Gag all over Brian France if you like, but the only two guys other than Johnson in the past few seasons who had any legitimate shot to win an outright title if not for the Chase were Jeff Gordon (who easily would have six or seven titles by now ... um, who got "hosed" by the Chase changes again?) and, possibly, Carl Edwards (which, in hindsight, seems debatable from two seasons ago). Even Tony's "regular season" win last year (2009) wasn't necessarily a given into the post-season final ten. JJ outraced him and won more times.

Who deserves last year's title - the guy with more wins or the guy who was better over the whole year (which was mathematically Johnson TOO)? We wouldn't have a Chase if Matt Kenseth hadn't cruised to the 2003 title on the merits of one lone win. Anybody remember far enough back to hearken a guy named Benny Parsons who did the same thing three decades earlier?

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The "New" NASCAR ... Back to the Future?

Thanks to the increasing value of NASCAR content for me from Twitter (, I stumbled across this instant gem of an article from late yesterday (2/1/2010) . I will provide a portion of the content unadulterated in its original form (using "quotes" as appropriate) followed by my own thoughts in italics.

"Setting the table for a new, more relevant NASCAR"
By Peter M. De Lorenzo


©2010, Inc.

"(Posted 2/1, 12:45PM, Part III of a Series) Detroit. After a highly-confidential meeting that took place over the weekend before the Daytona 24 Hour race - and in subsequent meetings that will be played out in the early spring - it's clear that we are on the precipice of a dramatically different direction for NASCAR, one that not only marks a new era of NASCAR involvement and cooperation with the manufacturers, but a new willingness on NASCAR's part to move the needle in a positive direction, embrace change, and make genuine, substantive progress when it comes to creating more relevance between what the car companies are selling, and what NASCAR is racing."

Incredibly happy from my personal opinion to see a "confidential meeting" take place involving NASCAR executives. As many of the old faithful fans would say, it's about time...

"The harsh reality."

"It's no secret that this nation's near economic collapse and the following lengthy, deep recession, compounded by the added chaos of two of the Detroit Three going bankrupt - not to mention the fact that the visibly empty grandstands and declining TV rating numbers across the board at NASCAR races, and the ongoing difficulty of some teams to stay solvent - has weighed heavily on the powers that be at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach. And after much hand-wringing and soul-searching, the situation has finally jarred Brian France and his team of key NASCAR leaders into facing a new and harsh reality. And that reality suggests - as outlined by newly-concerned and energized manufacturers - that they must fundamentally change what they're doing if they expect to survive as the major force in American racing."

Hard to ignore the economic woes of both GM and Chrysler, but the more interesting thing to me is that Ford figured out a way to be profitable again (through the government bailout boost, no doubt) despite the lack of recent on-track success with NASCAR. If NASCAR still drove the old "win on Sunday, buy on Monday" mantra, then Chevrolets should be flying out of the showroom (which, of course, they're not). The "best" news for the Big 3 honestly comes from the very recent (and very public) PR failure of Toyota, which opens a gaping-wide hole in the whole "superior quality" crap which foreign automakers have held for years now. Toyota and Honda got to where they are through the stressing of quality ... Honda still clings to the concept (if only barely) as the global automotive landscape starts to shift.

"In my previous columns I noted that two of the three domestic auto manufacturers have had new leadership teams come into place. And these leaders in question - in addition to their other duties - have a direct say as to not only what the scope of their companies' involvement in NASCAR will be, but more important, how much of their racing budgets will be directly allocated to their NASCAR racing programs. I also noted that with this transition in power has come a new emphasis on the word "relevance," as in just how willing will NASCAR be to alter its formula to accommodate the wishes of these manufacturers in terms of utilizing more advanced technologies, alternative fuels, and most important, establishing a direct visual connection between the cars sold in their showrooms and the cars that appear in NASCAR races, particularly in Sprint Cup."

This is truly the "enlightening" news ... that the leadership of the rebuilt GM and Chrysler will be really driving the show for a while. GM, no doubt, will need to be the far-more vocal partner, as Dodge's presence is dwindling out almost as fast as it reappeared not that many years ago within the past decade. I am 100% supportive of the return to a "stock car" concept, which has become increasingly "false advertising" in the acronym of NASCAR itself (lest we forget that it is the "National Association of STOCK CAR Auto Racing"). Realistically, though, the breadth of the NASCAR brand into the other touring series (second-tier "Nationwide" cars, Truck series, etc.) has diluted exactly what is meant by a "stock car" anymore anyway. The Cup series SHOULD be the most reflective of the actual cars made by automakers if they will continue to spend their biggest bucks there.

"Well, it appears that we will have our answers shortly."

"The end of the "Car of Tomorrow" as we know it.

"Over the course of the last decade, NASCAR's quest to field a starting grid of equally-spec'd cars has culminated with the disastrous adventure into the cookie-cutter shape of the "Car of Tomorrow." The "CoT" accomplished two important things for NASCAR: 1. It established a new level of safety as a direct result of the tragic accident that claimed NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt's life. 2. It removed almost every last vestige of manufacturer involvement in establishing distinctive car shapes - and bending the rules - by making all of the car bodies nearly identical, with only decals allowed to indicate headlights, taillights, etc., for the competing manufacturers. But the third thing the CoT accomplished was not, in hindsight, something NASCAR wanted to achieve at all and that was to drive a wedge between the hard-core NASCAR faithful and their traditional brand allegiances. Being "a Ford guy (or gal)" or a "Chevy guy (or gal)" or a "Dodge guy (or gal)" may not play in many places left in the U.S., but it most definitely still plays with NASCAR's loyalist fans, and in one fell swoop NASCAR took that notion away from them with the CoT. And of course that contributed two more things to NASCAR's current predicament: empty seats in the grandstands and manufacturers who were growing unhappier by the day as they realized the net effect of NASCAR's drive for "commonality" was almost a complete loss of their brand recognition."

This section says it all without any thoughts from me ... hard to be a "Ford guy" or a "Chevy guy" anymore. My favorite driver went from Pontiac (GM) to Chevy (GM) to Toyota back to Chevy in about a five- to six-year span [Tony Stewart]. He won seemlessly regardless of which car he was in, although his Toyota *year* was not particularly successful, moreso because of Tony planning his Joe Gibbs exodus (and Tony's ultimate loyalty to Chevrolet) being the bigger factor at play. The COT drove the ultimate wedge, making Cup series essentially an IROC-light version where only the strongest could survive (i.e. anybody attached to Hendrick Motorsports).

"So what will the next-gen NASCAR "stock car" look like? Take a long look at the production-based Camaro race car (below) that ran in the GT-class in the Daytona 24 Hour, add a spoiler instead of a wing, and you will have a real good idea as to what just might be coming to NASCAR by 2012. That's right, racing cars based on real stock dimension production bodies for the first time in a long, long time. Will it be an abrupt transition? No, this is NASCAR after all, but it will be much sooner than anyone expects too. And these won't be front-wheel-drive machines masquerading in rear-wheel-drive configuration, either. The production-based nature of the new NASCAR race car will demand that the race car mirrors the production car's drivetrain configuration, which means it must be available in rear-wheel-drive on the street if it's going to be eligible to run in Sprint Cup."

Easily exciting news ... especially if you are a true loyalist who has fallen from the fold. This honestly might bring back fans who had left and/or become disenchanted with the product on the race track. The beginning of the end of "follow the leader" racing, I hope.

Photo Courtesy: Rick Dole Photography

"The shape of things to come for NASCAR."

"And the way this new car may be transitioned into Sprint Cup could be very interesting, too, as NASCAR considers making the new machines - Camaro, Mustang, Challenger, a car from Toyota as yet to be determined, and any new entry from other manufacturers interested - the only cars eligible for its two road racing venues (Watkins Glen & Sears Point-Infineon). Although, with NASCAR running a Nationwide race at Elkhart Lake's Road America this summer, don't be surprised if a third road race is added to the Sprint Cup schedule by 2011 at Road America - without adding to the total number of races - with that additional road race to be run during the "Chase" for the Championship."

Honestly, about time a road course plays into the Chase format ... although adding only a Road Course isn't enough in my humble opinion. Make the Chase reflect the "best" of your tracks and reflective of the difficulty mastering every style. Why have 70% of the Chase run on cookie-cutter layouts (i.e. the 1.5-mile style of Charlotte, Texas, Kansas, yada yada yada)? I want to see this taken one step further to ensure that the 1/2-mile (ala Bristol), 3/4-mile (ala Richmond), 1-mile (ala Dover), "intermediate" (between 1- and 1.5-mile length, ala Darlington), and then the longer set (2-mile MIS / California-type venue and/or the 2.5-mile Daytona or 2.66-mile Talladega). The Chase should be tougher than it is ... why make it a "cake walk" for a Jimmie Johnson, who, no offense to him, hasn't mastered Bristol or a road course. Can you picture a Chase with Bristol and a road course included? Welcome back, Jeff Gordon, to relevance. In no particular order, the Chase could honestly build from Bristol to Richmond to Dover (which it sort of does, except Bristol's schedule timing is 100% irrelevant now and Richmond only matters because guys are trying to make the Chase itself). If the "purists" think the banking of Bristol and Dover is not as "pure" as, say, Martinsville and/or New Hampshire, I completely beg to differ. I would watch the prior two or the latter two *in a heartbeat* ... Bristol in a Chase would be 10x better than Bristol two races before the Chase is now. You might actually see drivers scared to actually have to RACE there again (instead of the follow-the-leader garbage in the past few seasons).

"A new era of technology."

"A new, production-based car is only just the beginning of NASCAR's fundamental transformation. Because along with these new cars will begin a new era of contemporary technology, as Brian France & Co. shores up its longstanding relationship with the manufacturers by not only adopting new technology, but by embracing the use of it enthusiastically and across the board. "

"What does this mean? Watch for a change in NASCAR's required fuel by 2012, with a bio fuel becoming the new standard. Also look for direct-injected engines, sequential-shift gear boxes, and a host of other new technical applications."

Completely relevant move, completely right for timing (if not overdue) ...

"The most important aspect of this development is that NASCAR will be working side-by-side with the interested manufacturers to make things better and more interesting for the fans, while at the same time making things better and more relevant for the manufacturers. How is this different than before? As I said, both parties - the manufacturers and NASCAR - are embarking on a new spirit of cooperation and willingness to embrace change."

"Bringing NASCAR into the Future."

"It doesn't matter how the parties in question arrived at this point in my estimation, the important thing is that the realization is finally there that business as usual no longer applies, and that a fundamental transformation must take place for the benefit of all concerned."

"I have been NASCAR's harshest critic by far for going on 11 years now. Do I believe that everything will be all better overnight and that there won't be any problems and missteps along the way? "

"In a word, no."

"But I am impressed and I do believe that Brian France and his chief lieutenants have finally gotten the message and have begun to see the light, and it will benefit all fans of racing if they - and the manufacturers - get it right."

To make direct reference to this author, I am more than impressed that Brian France has "seen the light" where (in all honesty) his own father had strayed a bit in the 30 years prior to his tenure. When Brian took over in 2004 (with the Chase intro), he knew things were not "right" about the sport anymore ... he alienated almost as many as he brought into the fold, though, by making standardized cars (same bodies, same templates) with only minor differences even under the hood that haven't produced "exciting" racing because a casual fan can't distinguish any car from any other car (other than the paint scheme of logos and decals). What NASCAR has lacked is really tapping into brand identification BEYOND the car sponsors themselves, back to the roots where the manufacturer DID draw the attention of the fans who watched and DROVE the product represented on the track. I couldn't buy any of these four manufacturers (Ford, Chevy, Dodge, or Toyota) now based on what I visually see in NASCAR ... it doesn't exist. I don't even drive one of these four brands (although my wife's car is one of them ... and not at all representative of the similar "in name only" track equivalent).

I used to drive a Pontiac Bonneville (a legendary name unto itself), about the same time period that my driver was still in one, too (albeit the "Grand Prix" model). Pontiac has disappeared from the sport (as GM focused on one offering only) in much the same way my former, former vehicle (a Mercury) disappeared from the landscape MUCH longer ago (before I was ever driving, much less even BORN). Can you picture a field of Chevys, Fords, Dodges, and Toyotas alongside the likes of Hondas, Nissans, BMWs, etc. that ALSO drive our highways? That's not to say that ANY of these manufacturers (notably Honda, which has focused only on open-wheel racing historically) would actually come into NASCAR ... but wouldn't it be interesting? I personally think so...

Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives:

(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Daytona, FL, February 27,1966. The start of the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway. Pole-sitter Richard Petty (No. 43 Petty Enterprises Plymouth) and Dick Hutcherson (No. 29 East Tennessee Motor Co. Holman-Moody Ford) lead the field into Turn One. Petty would go on to win that day with an average speed of 160.927 mph, while Hutcherson would DNF. Cale Yarborough (No. 27 Banjo Matthews Ford) finished second and David Pearson (No. 6 Cotton Owens Dodge) third in front of an announced crowd of 90,000.