Wednesday, November 12, 2014

NASCAR Spins Out Of Control

Harvick and Logano sporting "Mad Max" flares
NASCAR is in danger of losing control.

I’m not talking about the weekly episode of NASCAR Drivers Gone Wild.

It probably didn’t seem like much at first.  Just a little tug on the lower front opening of the rear wheel well.

No big deal.  Except now it could have a major impact on the outcome of the Chase.

And it’s symbolic of a bigger problem.  NASCAR has been losing control of the garage area, where it once ruled with an iron – if sometimes ham-handed – fist.

The most visible evidence of the loss of control can be seen on every Sprint Cup car after the first pit stop during a race, the flared bottom of the rear quarter panel, in front of the wheel opening.

The flaring rose to prominence in the opening race of the Chase, Chicagoland, when the winning car of Brad Keselowski featured pronounced flaring of its rear skirts.  No problem, ruled NASCAR, probably just the result of contact on the track or running down on the apron, which happens a lot at Chicago. 

But those in the garage knew better. 

Presented with high res video evidence that the “flaring” occurred as part of carefully choreographed pit stops when a crew member nonchalantly reached down and gave the fender a tug to improve the car’s aerodynamics, NASCAR elected to turn a blind eye towards future violations.   

“You can only go so far until it doesn’t make a difference anymore,” Robin Pemberton, senior vice president of Competition, said of the flaring.  “Right now, the rules are what they are. We’ll continue to run out the season policing areas that we police the way we do and areas that we don’t police the way we don’t police them.

“It’s not anything new. It’s just something that there’s more evidence out there than ever before. I can’t remember when it hasn’t been done. Everybody starts the same and that’s our goal.”

The flaring escalated at each subsequent race, sometimes with comical results, the side skirting occasionally being completely pulled away.  A perfectly pulled skirt now resembles something out of the Road Warrior, a tire shredding weapon that would make Mad Max proud.  Ironically, while it was contact with Keselowki that cost Jeff Gordon at chance at winning at Charlotte, it was shredded tire, very likely caused by the flared skirt, that cost Gordon a spot in the Chase.

“It is definitely getting a little bit out of control,” Gordon said of the flaring before Phoenix.  “NASCAR is probably looking at it as 'OK, we have two races left. Let's address that next year.’ I don't think they are really in a position to address that right now.”

The fender flaring, however, is just the most visible indication that NASCAR has lost control.  Crabbing also has crept back in the picture.

“The amount of cheating going on in the garage has reached new levels,” said one NASCAR insider.  “It’s out of control.”

He pointed to NASCAR’s new management team that has been moving into position during the past two years, as facing a steep learning curve.   

‘They’re good people, they’ll get a handle on it,” he said.  “But at the moment, they’re overmatched.”

Brent Dewar, a former sales and marketing exec at General Motors, took over as NASCAR’s Chief Operating Officer at the start of the year.  At the same time, Richard Buck was named managing director of the Sprint Cup series replacing John Darby, who had held the position for 12 years.  Buck was vice president of racing operations for the International Motor Sports Association, and he held several NASCAR technical positions prior to that.  He’s also a former Indy 500 winning crew chief. 

Meanwhile, NASCAR’s well-respected and longtime leader in the garage area, Mike Helton, has taken on an increasingly lower profile.  

In a move to shift top management closer to the action, Steve O'Donnell, the heir apparent to Helton, was recently named executive vice president and chief racing development officer and is moving his office moving to Charlotte, where he has also assumed management of the Research and Development Center.  

Gene Stefanyshyn, another former GM exec who joined NASCAR in May 2013 and is responsible for the Racing Development and Innovation group, now reports to O’Donnell, as does Pemberton.  Both men previously reported to Helton. 

All of which should help – next year.

For now, NASCAR is facing two nightmare Homestead scenarios. 

First, Ryan Newman is the top finisher and is crowned NASCAR champion, without winning a race all season.

Second, someone loses the race as the result of a shredded tire from a flapping fender flare.

“Everyone is taking advantage of what is there as they should,” Said Joey Logano, one of four finalists.  “I don’t blame anyone. Obviously the consequence is you touch each other and you can get a flat tire, but that’s all part of it. We all know it. We can see it. We know if we touch each other we’ll have an issue because of everyone being so aggressive in that department, but that’s the name of the game right now.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Who Made Harvick Sherriff?

Sherriff Harvick?
Of all the shenanigans that went on Sunday night in Texas, the strangest was Kevin Harvick sneaking up behind Brad Keselowski and pushing him towards Jeff Gordon. 

Up until that point, the confrontation between Keselowski and Gordon seemed to be headed in the direction of the typical baseball “fight,” lots of guys (and Jamie Little) standing around yelling and pushing, but no punches being thrown.

But Harvick’s push put Keselowski within range of Gordon, who reached out and grabbed him.  That’s when all hell broke loose.  Harvick was nowhere to be seen, however, slinking off into the shadows after triggering a fight that would put most minor league hockey brawls to shame.

NASCAR rightfully came down hard on the crewmembers involved with fines and suspensions announced Tuesday, but it elected to let Harvick go unpunished.  If it had been a hockey game, he would have received a game misconduct for being the third man in.   

"If you're going to drive like that, you'd better be willing to fight," Harvick had said after the race.  "It's like I told him, 'If you're going to drive like a madman, you'd better be willing to take a few punches.' He was going to stand behind his guys.  Jeff Gordon deserved to at least have a face-to-face conversation with him.

"I said (to Keselowski), 'You're the problem. Get in your own fight.'"

All that may be true, but the question is: Who died and made Harvick sheriff?  And remember, Harvick has already said there’s no way Matt Kenseth will win the Chase after the pair collided at Martinsville. 

Actually, Harvick is more Deputy Dawg than Wyatt Earp, but that’s beside the point.

“Kevin likes everybody to fight for some reason,” Keselowski said.  “I came here to race, not to fight.  I raced as hard as I could and these guys just didn’t like it.”

With all eight Chase eligible drivers still in the running for the finale, the circus now heads to Phoenix, appropriately just up the road from the Tombstone and the O. K. Coral.  At least that one was a relatively fair fight, the three Earps and Doc Holliday against four Cowboys.  So the Earps brought shotguns.  But that’s nothing like was Keselowski will face.  About the only person he can count on not to put him into the wall is teammate Joey Logano, who has had his own run-ins with Marshall Harvick and others.

That’s a fact not lost on Denny Hamlin.

"It's hard to win a championship on your own," said Hamlin on Tuesday.  "I feel like I've learned the hard way that that these guys can make your job hard, if they really want to.  You've just gotta have some kind of friends out there in some kind of way."

Somehow I don't think Keselowski feels the same way.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Makes Brad So Bad? Maybe He Wants It More

What's Bad Brad's Problem?
To hear Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Danica Patrick and a host of others tell it, Brad Keselowski is a reckless, out-of-control, idiot/ass/jerk.  Take your pick.

So what makes Brad so bad?

Easy.  He wants it more.

It’s been apparent since his first Sprint Cup victory in 2009, when he refused to back off at Talladega and sent Carl Edwards flying, that he wasn’t going to give an inch to the more established NASCAR drivers.  Charlotte and its aftermath was just the latest chapter.

He has repeatedly drawn the ire of NASCAR’s superstars, who complain he is too aggressive on the track and too outspoken off it.

So just how bad does Brad want it?

Perhaps the best indication came in 2011 when he sustained a badly broken ankle, hurt his back and suffered other injuries when his brakes failed and he crashed during a test at Road Atlanta.  His hopes of reaching the Chase appeared over.  But just a few days later he was back in the car and winning at Pocono, finished a slam bang second at Watkins Glen, third at Michigan and then won again at Bristol to make the Chase.  He didn’t win the Chase, but the stage was set for the following year.

He has continued to tangle with Edwards over the years and had multiple run-ins with Hamlin and Busch.  This season the cars of Keselowski and Kenseth seem to be joined together at the bumper.

At Richmond, Kenseth repeatedly blocked Keselowski and cost him a chance at victory, a move BK called “mind boggling” at the time.  The very next week Keselowski spun in front of the field at Talladega while running six laps down, touching off the latest of the “Big Ones” he had contributed to at the track and involving 15 cars, including Kenseth.

“If it was the other way around, if it was anybody else except for him, we’d all be getting lectured," Kenseth said afterward.  "I didn’t know he was that many laps down honestly. He came down in the front of the 10 car early and spun out and was racing pretty aggressively there to try and get it back.”

Others saw it another way.  Even six laps down, he hadn’t given up.

Keselowski also has repeatedly outraced and outsmarted others, especially at Talladega. He made a dramatic last lap pass of Kenseth in 2012 that left everyone shaking their heads and wondering, “how’d he do that?”  Afterwards he displayed the type of brashness that he’s become known for, but doesn’t always sit well with other drivers.

"Hell, it's my job to be good,” Keselowski said.  “That's what I get paid for. I don't get paid to suck at this. If I did, I'm not driving for the right guy."

So it’s no surprise Keselowski has few friends among other NASCAR drivers.  And that’s apparently fine with him.  It’s one reason he lobbied Roger Penske to add Joey Logano to the team.  An outcast after being thrown under Joe Gibbs’s motor coach by Hamlin and Busch, Logano has been resented by many in the garage area ever since joining the NASCAR ranks with his “Sliced Bread” moniker.  In contrast, Keselowski and Logano seem like the perfect fit. 

All of which sets the stage for an interesting Talladega race.  Notice I didn’t say exciting.  Can’t say much of the racing so far in the Chase has been exciting and don’t really expect things to change at Talladega, at least until the last lap or so.

However, you can expect to Dale Earnhardt Jr., as he usually does, to go to the front.  He’s also one of the few friends Keselowski has among the drivers.  BK will go with him, flanked (guarded?) by Logano and Ryan Blaney, who Penske has brought in for the race to serve as Brad’s wingman.   And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Earnhardt teammate Jimmie Johnson break with his past Talladega strategy and run up front as well.  Kenseth, who also may need a win, is more likely to lag behind for much of the race. 

Earnhardt, Johnson and Keselowski all need a win at Talladega to make the Chase and there’s a good chance all three will be near the front at the end.  Only one will make it.

Whoever wants it the most.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

NASCAR Bans Innovation

Maybe NASCAR should bring back Petty, Superbirds
NASCAR released its 2015 rules package on Tuesday, bragging about more than 60 “enhancements,” primarily aimed at reducing horsepower and downforce and – most of all – saving money.  All in the name of better racing.

One thing NASCAR didn’t mention.  The new rules also ban innovation.

For nearly two years NASCAR had talked about a new “Engine of Tomorrow.” Everything was supposedly being considered, including V6 and even V6 turbo engines.  It was an opportunity to make NASCAR relevant again, to put it at the forefront of the development of not only tomorrow’s racing engines, but also tomorrow’s passenger car engines. 

The auto industry will undergo the biggest changes in its history during the next 10 years as a result of mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that are set to nearly double by 2025, to 54.5 miles per gallon.  That’s easily the biggest increase in standards since they were first established in the early 1970s.

Currently only the Toyota Prius and similar hybrids, meet the 2025 standards.  The V6-powered Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Impala or Malibu will have to nearly double current mileage ratings.  V8 engines such as the one in Chevy SS will disappear.  The manufacturers say they will make extensive use of 4- and 6-cylinder engines and turbocharging to meet the standards.  You may be able to find a V8 engine in a Corvette in 2025, but you’ll pay a huge premium for it.

To meet the new standards, the industry will undertake a decade of development and innovation unmatched in its history.  One Toyota executive says the industry will see more changes in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 100.

But instead of being part of this development and innovation, NASCAR has decided to take a back seat and watch the world pass it by.  The series is going with the “Engine of Yesterday,” taking a page from its truck and Nationwide series by adding a “tapered spacer” to the existing 1970s-era V8 engines to cut horsepower from about 850 to about 725.  If you like restrictor plates, you’ll love “tapered spacers.”  Gear ratio reductions will limit engines to about 9,000 RPM.

We may never see another engine failure.  And that’s good, because the only V8 engines you’ll be able to find 10 years from now may be those running around in circles in NASCAR races.  It will become a form vintage racing.

And just to make sure some team doesn’t get ambitious and actually try to develop an edge on the track, NASCAR banned all testing.  Teams will be hard-pressed to develop something new during one or two test sessions the day before a race.  To enforce the ban the organization put in place its most stringent penalty ever, a loss of 150 points, minimum $150,000 fine and six-week crew chief suspension.

The series made it clear the new rules were developed in collaboration with “the race teams, the drivers, our manufacturer partners and Goodyear” and I don’t doubt that for second.  I was hoping NASCAR, the race teams, drivers, manufacturers and Goodyear might dip into that $8+ billion treasure chest of new TV money in the name of moving the series forward, but I should have known better.  It’s all about maintaining the status quo.

It’s pretty much impossible to find anyone in the garage area who isn’t raving about these “enhancements” for 2015.  Unlike the botched rollout of the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR obviously did its homework with the teams and had everyone signing from the same hymnal.

Maybe, just maybe, NASCAR is on to something with the retro engine package.  Afterall, vintage racing is the hottest form of motorsports at the moment.  The next step is to bring back the body styles from the ‘70s; the Super Birds, Talladegas and the Chevelles.  Heck, maybe we can even get Petty, Pearson, Allison and Yarborough back in the cars.

Now that would be a race worth watching.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Time For Tony Stewart To Speak Up

Stewart just days before his world was turned upside down
It’s time for Tony Stewart to step up and tell his side of the story about what happened the night of Aug. 9, 2014, when the race car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in Ontario County, N.Y.

After a month-long investigation, the decision by district attorney Michael Tantillo to send the case against Stewart to the grand jury was predictable.  Tantillo could have thrown the case out after receiving the Sherriff’s report, or immediately charged Stewart.  Either action would have been controversial.  Instead, he decided to punt.  By putting the ball in the grand jury's court, the elected official avoided taking a stand on what must be one of the most politically sensitive cases the area has ever seen.

"I have made the determination that it would be appropriate to submit the evidence to a grand jury, for their determination as to what action should be taken in this matter," read Tantillo’s abdication.

The next step is for the evidence to be reviewed by a grand jury, a group of 23 people, something of an expanded trial jury.   There is no timetable for the hearings other than “soon” and they are confidential.  The evidence is presented by someone in the district attorney’s office, expected to be Tantillo himself.  But there is no judge, no defense attorney; no questioning of evidence or witnesses, beyond questions the grand jury itself may submit.  Stewart’s lawyers won’t be present unless Stewart is called to testify.

It’s impossible for me -- and many others -- to believe Stewart meant to hit or hurt Ward Jr. when the young driver darted towards Stewart’s car.  But did Stewart mean to spray a little dirt on the kid as he drove past and things then went horribly wrong?  That’s a legitimate question many others have.  If the grand jury has the same question at the end of the hearing, Stewart could be charged with second-degree manslaughter or even negligent homicide for "recklessly causing the death of another person."

Once the case is presented, if a majority of the grand jury believe the “evidence is legally sufficient and provides reasonable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the crime," an indictment is handed down.  Stewart would be charged with a crime and a date set for trial.

It’s unclear whether Stewart will be called to testify before the grand jury, or if he will ask to testify.  The grand jury is able to call and question witnesses and one would expect Stewart to be one of those witnesses.  But there are no guarantees. 

At this point, I expect the grand jury will do the same thing as the DA and simply pass the buck.  Give it back to the DA for a regular trial by a jury.

Much of the case in a manslaughter trial goes to intent and state-of-mind.  Only Stewart can answer those questions.  That’s why I believe he should come forward now and talk about that night.  Why wait?  He might even influence the grand jury.

Stewart has refused to answer questions, saying he needed to “respect the ongoing investigation process.”  Well the investigation concluded two weeks ago.

But while the grand jury proceedings are confidential, witnesses are free to discuss their testimony outside the courtroom and so there are no legal constraints on Stewart taking questions.

Although the answers would seem obvious, people want to see and hear how Stewart responds.  Stewart’s short, scripted remarks before the Atlanta race didn’t do the trick.

Of course there’s no requirement that Stewart testify before the grand jury or even if the case does go trial.  That’s up for the defense to decide.  But it seems the only way Stewart can convince either jury - or the court of public opinion - that he had no intent to injure Ward or even just spray dirt on him, will be for him to answer the questions himself. 

So why wait?  

Monday, September 15, 2014

NASCAR’S Billy Horschel Nightmare

NASCAR's Billy Horschel?
NASCAR has a Billy Horschel problem.

Who?

Exactly.

Horschel captured the FedEx Cup on Sunday in Atlanta, the Professional Golf Association’s equivalent of NASCAR’s Case, along with the $10 million bonus that goes with it.  The FedEx Cup was born out of an effort by the PGA to give meaning to the final golf tournaments of the season after the last “major” event of the year and the advent of football season.  Sound familiar?  It’s golf’s version of the Chase. 

Three weeks ago Horschel had missed the cut in the opening round of the FedEx Cup and dropped to 82nd in the rankings.  He hadn’t won a tournament all year and had only two top 10 finishes to show for 2014.  Ryder Cup Captain Tom Watson never even considered him for a spot on the team when identifying America’s dozen best golfers. 

Then Horschel got hot, red hot, about as late in the year as possible, winning the final two tournaments of the season and as a result, the FedEx Cup.  In the process he beat Rory McIlroy, everyone’s golfer of the year.  All McIlroy did during the “regular” season was win two of four majors and three straight other big tournaments.  He is the only player to finish in the top 25 in every start for the past two years.

In fairness, McIlroy had his chance.  He was tied with Horschel going into Sunday’s final round.  The season had come down to the final 18 holes for the FedEx Cup.  It was a dream come true for the PGA.  But then the wrong guy won.  Even Horschel left no doubt who he thinks is this year’s best golfer.

"In my mind, he’s (McIlroy) the player of the year,” Horschel said.  “I don’t think there’s anyone who comes close.”

While Horschel was winning in Atlanta, Brad Keselowski was winning in Chicago, his second straight victory and fifth of the season, more than any other driver.  There’s a good chance he’ll win one or two more races before the finale at Homestead.

Yet there’s also a chance Keselowski, and other winners from the NASCAR regular season, could lose the NASCAR championship to someone who doesn’t win a race all year.

Meet Matt Kenseth – NASCAR’s Billy Horschel.

Of course every NASCAR fan knows who Kenseth is.  He won more races than everyone else last year, but has yet to score a victory this season.  Consistent finishes have kept him near the top of the point standings.   And consistent finishes could win him the title this year if everything goes his way, despite NASCAR's emphasis on winning.  Vegas puts his odds at a respectable 12/1.

If Kenseth can parlay a few more consistent finishes into the final race at Homestead, all he has to do is finish ahead of the other in the Final Four.  If he was to finish second to, say, Kyle Larson, with Keselowski (or another finalist) third, Kenseth would be NASCAR’s champion.

Possible?  You bet.

Fair.  No way, and Kenseth would probably be the first to say so.

Of course people won’t be asking “who?” if Kenseth wins the Chase.

But they will be asking “why?”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Process Did Tony Stewart Go Through?

Helton created more questions than he answered
From the moment NASCAR released a statement on Thursday announcing: "Tony Stewart has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities, and therefore is eligible to compete this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway,” the question has been, what clearances?

We don’t know.

In press briefings on Friday by Stewart, Stewart’s team and NASCAR, we heard plenty of talk about the clearance “process.”  Process?  What process?

Again, we don’t know.  And no one is talking.

As should be expected, Stewart appeared emotional and distressed throughout his brief appearance Friday before the media in Atlanta to read a short statement.  He didn’t take questions, saying, “I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time." 

Then he added, seemingly offhand, “Emotionally, I’m not sure if I could answer them anyway.”

So, from an emotional standpoint, who says he’s ready to drive?

We don’t know.

NASCAR President Mike Helton and Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing, dodged repeated questions about the process following Stewart’s appearance.

Other than saying the decision to return was “100% Tony’s,” Frood refused to shed any light on the process.

“As you all know, when a driver's out of the car, there is that process (for returning).  I'm not going to get into the medical side of it, but I will say we've been in close contact with them (NASCAR) throughout the process, have gotten from them what he needed to get back in the car right now.”

Helton was even more evasive, being careful that NASCAR didn't take any responsibility. 

“As typical, our process calls for us to rely on third party experts to assure us that a NASCAR driver or a NASCAR member is ready to return.  All those forms of processes were met and we cleared him based on those third party inputs from experts.

Helton was asked if the process including psychological or psychiatric reports.

“We received the ones that we felt were relevant under the circumstances.”

Asked again if the reports were from physiological professionals and how reporters should categorize them, Helton responded, “The ones that were relevant to these circumstances.”

This isn’t the first time NASCAR’s clearance “process” has been clouded in confusion.  It was the last major sport to adopt a procedure for checking competitors for concussions.  That happened only after Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted driving with a concussion.  

And earlier this year it was Earnhardt Jr. who openly questioned NASCAR’s lack of information about the process used when Denny Hamlin was not allowed to race in California with what at first was thought to be a sinus infection. 

Although it was later determined a small piece of metal in Hamlin’s eye caused his blurred vision, Earnhardt Jr.’s comments are as relevant now as they were then.

“NASCAR should put out a release and say, ‘This is the timeline of the events and this is why we made this choice and this is the protocol for going forward,’” Earnhardt said at the time.

“That answers everybody’s questions.  Don’t have questions?  I have questions.  We shouldn’t have questions.  We should all feel pretty comfortable with what happened.

“Why NASCAR did the things they did and the timeline, it would be good to know those things because the drivers are all curious and fans are curious.

“We should all know what happened and know why it happened and be done with it and not have to worry about it.”

Junior was right.  We should all know what happened, why it happened  It's the only way to be done with it.