From the Marbles archive

From the Marbles archive
Yahoo! Sports
February 13, 2007

In From the Marbles, Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR team – with the help of Yahoo! readers – ponders the latest news and biggest issues in the NASCAR world. Submit your question or comment below for future use in From the Marbles.

February 13, 2007
Don't feel cheated
By Bob Margolis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – I'm not sure who gets credit for saying it first, but there's an old saying in racing (and probably everything else): "It ain't cheatin' unless you get caught."

Well, a few guys did get caught.

So what?

With the ever-shrinking box in which NASCAR's teams – and specifically its crew chiefs – have to work in, you've got to believe that long hours are being spent sitting around figuring out how to stretch that box as far as it can go.

When asked about it, nearly every crew chief in the garage will say, "that's what I get paid to do."

Now the question is whether a crew chief should knowingly stretch that box beyond its point of breakage or simply tug at it slightly, hoping that the NASCAR inspectors won't notice.

Of course the answer, according to several top crew chiefs, is "you push the limits as far as they will go and if you get caught, well, then you need to be prepared to pay the penalty."

The close competition in today's Nextel Cup series, which is being driven by the huge amounts of R&D dollars spent by the bigger teams, demands that crew chiefs, car chiefs, engineers and even the tire specialists regularly put on their thinking caps in an effort to find whatever advantage is necessary to beat the competition.

Sometimes an idea is just too good to pass up.

Sometimes it is so good that the inspectors catch it.

But in most cases, they don't.

"Everybody has got something that's not right on their car in this garage," said a crew chief from a team that was involved in last year's Chase. "The deal here is that if the inspectors want to catch it, they will."

The same crew chief added that usually it's a "heads-up" from a competitor that tips off the inspectors to a potential infraction.

Of course, rules are rules. But are NASCAR's rules preventing innovation in the garage?


"Unfair competitive advantage" is the term given to anything found that while not currently illegal, still is just smart enough to make the other guys look not-so-smart – much like the modifications crew chief Chad Knaus was accused of making to the rear shocks of Jimmie Johnson's Chevy at Dover two years ago.

Not illegal, but deemed an "unfair competitive advantage."

So then just what is an unfair competitive advantage and who determines what it is and what it's not? Did the Roush and Evernham teams use an unfair competitive advantage or did they just cheat?

Or were they purposely bending the rules, figuring that their idea was just too slick for the NASCAR inspectors?

Or were they ratted-out?

Right now, there is a cadre of crew chiefs who are thinking, "there but for the grace of God go I." At the same time, another group wishes it could find some of that competitive advantage (legal, of course) to help them get into the field for the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

No matter how you want to look at it, the reality of the situation is this:

After his state of the sport speech Tuesday, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said, "You're going to have a couple of people who want to try the system. There's a lot on the line. That's been going on forever. It will go on forever."

In other words, cheating happens.

So instead of wasting a lot of time debating the hows and whys of what happened, how about just taking a deep breath and moving on?

February 11, 2007
Early trouble
By Bob Margolis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Now that there's been a full day's worth of practice for the Daytona 500 and the Bud Shootout, two major stories have surfaced.

Tires and Toyota.

First the tires.

Because NASCAR officials have decided to go back to the larger fuel cells (18 gallons) at Daytona and Talladega, Goodyear has also brought a harder and more durable tire. That has caused several problems – as witnessed during the Shootout, the first real competitive test of the new tire.

Many drivers reported having handling problems after 10 or 15 laps, including Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Boris Said. Gordon's Shootout ended early due to an electrical malfunction, but both Burton and Said struggled with an ultra-tight race car for nearly the entire race, as did several others.

Kurt Busch found himself having to deal with a dramatic change in the handling characteristics of the tires during the Shootout, but he managed to finish third. He says the tire is harder and that it feels as though the sidewalls are a bit softer, which makes the tire give more.

Having a tire change during a race is expected, but this new tire seems to change a bit more than usual.

Now, keep in mind, with the way today's Nextel Cup cars are set up, crew chiefs rely on tires as a major component of their suspension. This has forced crew chiefs to change their setups, making the front end of the car softer, eliminating a good deal of mechanical grip and therefore relying more on aerodynamics to accommodate the new tire.

That should play into the hands of the more savvy drivers during the 500, the ones who know how to play with the air during a race.

Shootout winner Tony Stewart says the new tire made for a worse race than last year's, not taking into account that the size of the fuel cells had increased. He also pointed to the new tires as being the reason why he was able to get then-race leader Kyle Busch loose, which allowed Stewart to make the pass for the lead – a lead he never relinquished.

It seems that every year, crew chiefs and drivers find themselves dealing with a new variable at Daytona. Does it make for better racing?

Maybe not.

Does it keep this sport and those who work in its garage and behind its steering wheels on their toes?


Now on to Toyota.

It has become apparent after two practice sessions that the expected wide gap between the Toyota teams and much of the rest of the field is definitely there, but there is also a wide gap between the Toyota teams themselves.

Everyone knew that the new manufacturer would struggle to gain speed, especially coming to a superspeedway like Daytona. But after hearing all the rhetoric from the Toyota camp about how all the teams are working together, it's obvious that there are huge differences between the qualities of those teams.

Jeremy Mayfield clocked the fourth-fastest practice speed while piloting Bill Davis Racing's No. 36 Camry, the best of the manufacturer's efforts. It came later in the day when the track conditions were at their best.

David Reutimann was 10th-fastest for Michael Waltrip's team, while Waltrip himself managed the 25th-fastest speed.

Without a doubt, the biggest surprise has to be Team Red Bull, which is the slowest of the Toyota teams. And for rookie A J Allmendinger, who is the slowest Toyota, it makes his learning curve in a Nextel Cup car the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

The lack of speed from Red Bull is surprising considering the vast amount of money allegedly being spent by the organization, and the recruiting of veteran and championship-winning crew chief Doug Richert.

Richert knows how to make a stock car fly around a race track, and either the higher-ups at Red Bull aren't heeding to his advice, or the parts and pieces coming out of the fabrication shop aren't up to the quality needed to make the speed to qualify for the Daytona 500.

All this emphasizes the conundrum faced by all the Toyota teams.

Their manufacturer partners are telling them to be patient and that the Toyota Racing Development folks will get them better engines and work with them on their aerodynamics.

But there are also each team's sponsor partners. They might not be as patient.

At this point in time, it looks as though there will be plenty of tough phone calls being made to sponsors Thursday evening after the Duel 150s by most of the Toyota team owners.

And there will be an oft-repeated sentence:

"We're not going to be in the Daytona 500."

February 9, 2007
Back in action
By Bob Margolis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – How sweet it is to be back at the track.

There's definitely something special about the roar of a stock car engine, even if it is a restricted one. And the smell of racing gasoline mixed with the aroma of hot Goodyear tires.

It's nirvana if for those who love racing.

Although the first item on the agenda here at Daytona is Saturday's Bud Shootout, crew chiefs are talking about the Car of Tomorrow.

Most agree that after NASCAR finalized the details of the design and teams were able to begin work on building the new, boxier car, it's turned out to be a pretty good piece.

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for the No. 5 Chevy driven by Kyle Busch, is a COT convert. He wasn't impressed when he first saw it, but he's now singing a different tune.

"We had a whole group of people working on just the COT and I think that will make a difference for us," Gustafson said.

Gustafson says it's like having a new toy to play with. Once he began to figure out that the new car behaves like the current car but with some slight variations, he began to enjoy working with it.

However, he still has some reservations about the styling.

"I've been working in stock cars for over a decade and it just doesn't look like a stock car to me," said Gustafson, who admitted that the looks have grown on him.

Todd Berrier, crew chief on Kevin Harvick's 29 car, is another COT fan and he thinks that once his team gets an opportunity to test the new car on Goodyear tires next month at Bristol, he'll know more on where he and the rest of the RCR teams stand.

Three. That's how many times the No. 22 Toyota Camry from Bill Davis Racing failed inspection for the Daytona 500. BDR is considered to be one of the top two teams from Toyota.

Robbie Loomis is beaming with confidence.

The vice president of competition for Petty Enterprises expressed confidence that his organization is moving along as planned and that a race win or two isn't out of the question this season.

Loomis also figures that the Petty group should have a very good COT, having been involved in the development of the new car since day one.

"That's going to make a big difference as we get into the midway point in the season," Loomis said. "We should be pretty good."

Things have definitely changed since last season.

It takes awhile to get used to seeing David Ragan's face on the side of the No. 6 hauler.

And Mark Martin's face on the side of the U.S. Army hauler.

But the face that's gotten the most comment is Elliott Sadler's. The depiction of Sadler on the side of his hauler is not exactly the way Sadler looks. It's sans goatee and long hair. Someone from his team commented that it's Sadler the way team owner Ray Evernham envisions he should look.

After taking some ribbing from another team, Sadler offered one of the team members $20 if they'd black out his tooth on the side of the hauler.

I'd be surprised if something like that doesn't happen before too long. I'd paint in the goatee.

The first practice for the Shootout happened Friday and the season has now officially begun.

Jeff Burton said during media day on Thursday that this will be the most competitive year in NASCAR in more than a decade and that everyone should expect some surprises – both good and bad.

With the new car, the new teams and the driver changes since last season, how could there not be?

February 8, 2007
Questionable exchange
By Jerry Bonkowski

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There's just something about Tony Stewart that seems to bring out weird questions from the media.

Last year, Stewart was grilled unmercifully by a Los Angeles Times columnist who seemingly wanted to get a rise out of Stewart – which he did. Stewart retaliated by refusing to talk with the media for the next few weeks.

Thursday at the Daytona 500 media day, Stewart again was the target of what some might jokingly refer to as an out-of-this-world question.

An Orlando Sentinel columnist asked the two-time Cup champion what he thought about Tuesday's big news story, where a female astronaut, preparing to confront a romantic rival, allegedly drove from Houston to Orlando while wearing a diaper to avoid rest stops

"What's that got to do with racing? Is she joining NASCAR?" Stewart said.

To that, the columnist chuckled and further pressed Stewart by adding, "Well, I wondered if it might be an innovation or something" to potentially be used in NASCAR.

Rarely at a loss for words, Stewart deadpanned, "You do the research, come back and tell us about it."

Stewart tried to get through several additional questions over the next couple of minutes, but the columnist obviously made a big impression – right or wrong – upon the driver of the No. 20 Chevrolet.

"Did that guy really ask me that question?" he quipped, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

Seeing that the writer was still behind him, Stewart decided it was time to turn the tables.

"Hey," Stewart said, "you're the leading candidate right now for dumbest question of the day. It'd be all yours. I mean, don't take it the wrong way, it's something to be proud of, dude. You guys are smoking too much stuff and becoming astronauts."

January 8, 2007
Down in Daytona
By Jerry Bonkowski

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – I always wanted to run away to join the circus when I was younger.

So what did I do when I grew up? I ran away to join a circus of another kind: NASCAR.

And Monday, the circus and I both came back to town, returning to Daytona International Speedway for the first of six days of testing (actually seven now that half of Monday's session was rained out) over the next two weeks for Nextel Cup cars.

Back to fast speeds and quick times … but also back to airplane delays, permanently lost luggage, crappy takeout meals after midnight – if you can find a place that's still open, that is – and of course, the beginning of getting four to five hours of sleep a night for the next 10 months.

And who says life on the NASCAR circuit isn't glamorous?

As much as I kicked and screamed about wanting to extend my offseason just another couple weeks, my boss still made me go down to Daytona. So I guess I'll make the most of it.

Daytona Beach is a great place to visit – for Speedweeks or in early July for the Pepsi 400. But when you only have roughly 25 cars in the garage and virtually no fans in the stands, and you can make it from your hotel room to the infield in less than five minutes (a trip that can sometimes take up to an hour on race morning, even though your hotel is just two blocks away), you practically feel like you're in a ghost town.

And that is a very weird feeling.

It rained on Toyota's parade Monday, but one might perceive the wetness at Daytona International Speedway to be tears of joy.

While the long-awaited debut of the Japanese automaker in actual competition trim was cut short by the weather during Monday's first day of preseason testing, it initially looks like the NASCAR newcomer may very well have its game face on.

Only three Toyota-powered teams took to the track before the clouds opened, but some of the results were fairly respectable – particularly Dave Blaney's surprising effort, turning in the third-fastest speed of the day (183.756 mph).

But that was only part of the surprise. Blaney's best lap was just a tick slower than the fastest man of the day, Tony Raines (183.974).

Tony Raines? Fastest? It's not very often that you put those words together in the same sentence.

Blaney also had the second-fastest Toyota speed, coming in 11th overall (182.782) in his backup Camry, while Dale Jarrett's backup car took him to a 14th-best speed of 182.615. Jarrett also cranked out the slowest Toyota speed of the day, 46th fastest out of 47 cars, at 180.408 mph.

The final Toyota driver, Brian Vickers, had speeds of 181.130 mph and 180.694 mph, good for 34th and 41st, respectively.

You could just sense that some drivers who were at DIS for this week's test session just didn't have their hearts in it Monday following the news that Bobby Hamilton died from cancer Sunday afternoon at the far-too-young age of 49.

Kevin Harvick, who had a few on-track skirmishes with Hamilton earlier in his career, spoke fondly of a hard competitor who became a good friend.

"Bobby and I raced hard on the race track," Harvick said. "In 2001, we had a run-in at Martinsville, but ever since that point we became pretty good friends. It's hard to lose somebody in the racing family, let alone someone you particularly knew well.

"It's hard to understand why certain things happen to certain people, but he was a pretty good person, liked to race and liked to be part of the sport."

Kasey Kahne knows Hamilton's son Bobby Jr. better, but nonetheless admired the elder Hamilton.

"I was really surprised and sad [about his death]," Kahne said. "That's someone I've looked up to just because of his work ethic and the way he got into NASCAR and the way he's run his teams. He's always had to battle and fight to do what he's done."

Defending Nextel Cup champ Jimmie Johnson had talked with Hamilton three months ago and was caught off-guard by Sunday's news.

"I saw that yesterday and was completely shocked and truly saddened by it all," Johnson said. "I remember seeing Bobby at Martinsville after the Cup practice was over. I stopped and shook his hand and said hello. He said he felt amazing and he looked great. So I wasn't aware of his [worsened] condition and to hear that news yesterday was really sad."

December 12, 2006
Crash course
By Jon Baum

Who says the offseason is boring?

Veterans possibly returning, drivers wrecking, champions flying off golf carts – there is plenty going on as the post-Cup banquet offseason enters just its second week, and we haven't even heard about potential changes to the Chase format yet.

Isn't it amazing that Jimmie Johnson can go through an entire season of bumping, banging and (sometimes) wrecking with nary a scratch, but a golf tournament does him in? Johnson broke his left wrist after reportedly falling from the top of a golf cart – which he allegedly was laying on – during a charity golf tournament.

Johnson should be fine when Daytona testing and then Speedweeks roll around early next year, but the injury will force him to miss the upcoming Nations Cup.

The incident also could speak to the issue of contracts limiting what a driver is and isn't allowed to do with his free time. Other sports have many of these provisions in their contracts, including not allowing baseball players to play pick-up basketball or preventing them and other sports' athletes from engaging in activities considered to be dangerous, such as riding a motorcycle.

Of course, playing golf typically isn't a high-risk sport, and it's hard to imagine a contract specifically addressing riding on top of a golf cart. And the biggest issue for NASCAR drivers away from Cup racing typically is how much racing they are allowed to do in other series.

But it is incidents like these and like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sports car crash at Sonoma that bring the contract issue to the forefront.

On a different note, breaking his wrist by "horsing around" and not initially explaining exactly what happened (his team says he wasn't trying to deceive anyone) either paints Johnson in a slightly (albeit insignificant) bad light early in his title reign, or it just shows him to be a bit more colorful than anyone ever gives him credit for.

Who knows, maybe the only reason he fell off the golf cart was that crew chief Chad Knaus could have altered it to an illegal roof height.

The bigger "news" perhaps is that Ricky Rudd reportedly will be back in Nextel Cup full-time next season, returning to Robert Yates Racing to again drive the No. 28 Ford, according to the Sporting News.

Rudd piloted Yates' No. 28 – which became the No. 38 when Elliott Sadler replaced Rudd entering 2003 – for three years, winning three races and finishing in the top 10 in points (twice in the top five) all three seasons. Rudd, who then drove for the Wood Brothers team for three years before taking the 2006 season off (save for one appearance as Tony Stewart's relief driver), had been rumored to be considering a part-time ride with the Wyler Racing team, for whom he tested in 2006.

The reports haven't been confirmed, but if they are true, it's an interesting move for several reasons. First, while Rudd never said he was officially retired, it was very uncertain whether he would return to Cup racing for more than a full-time schedule.

Second, Rudd's relationship with Yates did not end as well as it could have.

But the two did enjoy great success together, and Yates is making an effort to reignite a team that sputtered badly in 2006. Sadler left the organization over the summer, and Dale Jarrett and his UPS sponsorship are heading elsewhere in 2007.

Yates is banking some of his future on David Gilliland, who became an overnight sensation earlier in the year by beating the Buschwhackers and winning a Busch race with a team that essentially didn't even have a sponsor.

Adding a veteran like Rudd to the mix can only help the rebuilding effort.

Sure, putting another young driver with a lot of upside in the second ride would be a viable option, but Rudd will bring stability and leadership – and a significant fan base – that will complement Gilliland nicely. Rudd also should be able to provide a level of feedback necessary to improve the cars and setups that Gilliland, by virtue of lack of Cup experience, simply cannot.

Having Rudd also, frankly, should help Yates attract much-needed sponsorship and positive press. And driving for Yates, who still should have some of the best engines out there, could give Rudd a shot or two to get back into victory lane.

And if Rudd only keeps the seat warm for a year or two until Yates finds the next great young driver and Rudd decides he finally is ready to walk away, so be it. It will have been a year or two very well spent for both Yates and Rudd.

The other notable driver injury of late occurred when a Goodyear blew on Greg Biffle's car during a tire test last week at Las Vegas, sending Biffle's car into the wall in a fiery crash and leaving Biffle with a dislocated shoulder.

Biffle won the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami for the third consecutive year last month. The first Homestead win propelled Biffle to a career year in 2005, as he finished second in points. But the '05 Homestead win didn't lead to better things in '06, as Biffle struggled this past season and failed to make the Chase.

Aside from three top-fives – including the Homestead win – Biffle's last 10 races did not go particularly well, as he was plagued by wrecks and an engine failure.

Despite the Homestead win, it seems Biffle's bad luck didn't end the checkered flag flew on the '06 season last month.

December 6, 2006
On the road again
By Bob Margolis

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Some guys have all the luck.

Last week, NASCAR staged its annual Nextel Cup banquet and accompanying festivities honoring 2006 champ Jimmie Johnson within the concrete canyons of New York City.

Although the weather for the most part was pleasant enough last week and New York City is an extremely fun and exciting place to be, it doesn't hold a candle to the location for this week's Busch and Craftsman Truck Series banquet and festivities.

We're at Disney World.

Yes, it's a tough assignment, I know. But duty called, and I was ready to pack up my suitcase and suntan lotion and tackle the wilds of Animal Kingdom and Epcot.

This week's schedule is compact, spread out over three days instead of the weeklong circus in NYC. There is no lap around downtown Disney, no photo opportunities in Times Square – unless they're taking the replica of Times Square on the MGM Studios lot.

Instead, there are media opportunities with Busch Series champion Kevin Harvick and the rest of the series' top 10 drivers, along with Truck Series champion Todd Bodine.

Busch Rookie of the Year Danny O'Quinn also will be there. I'll be curious to see if he has found a ride yet for '07.

But it's not all Q&A sessions.

We'll be running hot laps at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway on Thursday. The speedway is a uniquely shaped track with a lake in the center. An overhead view reveals that it is shaped like Mickey Mouse's head.

A decade ago, WDW Speedway hosted an annual Craftsman Truck Series event at the end of January along with the Indy Racing League back when both series were in their infancy. It was a pretty big deal for the first few years, then attendance dwindled and the trucks moved on, as did the IRL. It now hosts the Petty Experience.

On Friday, there is golf on one of the Disney courses with Joe Gibbs teammates J. J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin, and batting practice at the Wide World of Sports Complex with Paul Menard, Johnny Sauter and championship-winning crew chief Shane Wilson. Chicago Cubs catcher Michael Barrett will be on hand to give pointers.

And finally there's a fishing excursion with B.A.S.S. fishing pros and team owner Richard Childress. Childress is known for being an avid fisherman and outdoorsman.

I've chosen to go fishing, although the 7 a.m. start time doesn't sound all that appealing. I just might sleep in and catch up with the guys over at the ballpark instead.

On Friday night, there's the Busch banquet, followed by the Truck banquet on Sunday.

Despite a coldfront that's coming through the area, the weather is expected to be sunny and in the low 60s all week.

Like I said, some guys have all the luck.

November 30, 2006
Who's better, who's best?
By Jerry Bonkowski

NEW YORK – Smiles and checks were in big supply at Thursday's National Motorsports Press Association/Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon.

More than $1 million was dispersed, with much of it going to new Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and 2005 champ Tony Stewart.

But it was Johnson's wife, Chandra, who may have gone home with the best gift of all. Sure, she'll get a healthy share of the several hundred thousands of dollars her husband took home, but she'll also leave with a brand new 2007 fire engine-red Chevrolet Corvette convertible.

Chevrolet general manager Ed Peper called them both to the stage, telling the audience of roughly 1,000 that he wanted to give Chandra something special for letting Chevy and the NASCAR world have so much of Jimmie's time this past season.

And when Peper announced the present, both Johnsons appeared to be genuinely shocked.

"I just want to know if she'll let me borrow the car," Jimmie Johnson chuckled.

To which Chandra promptly ad-libbed, "Sure, you can be my chauffeur."

You mean I don't get that one, too?

Johnson drew a few chuckles when, after picking up several awards, he remained on the stage during the presentation of the Chex Most Popular Driver Award.

It wasn't until a female awards presenter gently led Johnson away that he realized this was one award he didn't win in 2006.

That honor went to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the fourth consecutive year.

Even though he failed to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup and ended up finishing the season a career-low 11th in points, Stewart rivaled the Johnsons for the number of checks and trophies won, including the USG Improving the Finish Award, the Wix Lap Leader Award and the Bank of America Mid-Race Leader Award.

"When you don't make the Chase for the Championship, you have to find ways to supplement your income," Stewart quipped.

When he accepted the Lap Leader Award, Stewart, nattily dressed in a sport coat and turtleneck but with his usual race-day stubble, even poked fun at himself and his penchant for mediocre qualifying at times.

"Now you know what I did in the days I didn't qualify bad," Stewart said of the series-high 1,149 laps he led.

Denny Hamlin received an outstanding painting by famed auto racing artist Jane Bready in commemoration of winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award.

The first rookie to make the Chase, ultimately finishing third this year, also took home a $50,000 check.

Getting back to Stewart for a second, failing to make the Chase actually helped him as a driver.

Stewart told Yahoo! Sports Thursday that he has lost 19 pounds thus far on a diet that he began right around the time the Chase started in mid-September.

As a result, the 35-year-old Stewart feels more energized and nimble, and does not become as exerted as when he was packing more pounds.

"I may be 35 in age, but I still feel 18 in my mind," Stewart deadpanned.

Stewart's goal is to lose an additional 10 pounds before he begins his next phase of training in early January to build up muscle mass.

Talk about beginner's luck.

Allstate Insurance Co. received the Marketing Achievement Award as Marketer of the Year for a series of humorous and very popular commercials featuring Kasey Kahne. What made the honor so impressive is that Allstate has only been involved with NASCAR for less than two years.

Kahne also took home the Budweiser Pole Award and the Commit Lozenges Commit to Win Award.

Beloved TV analyst Benny Parsons won the prestigious National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Award but was unable to attend due to health reasons. Parsons still is weakened as he continues his ongoing recovery from treatment for lung cancer.

"I've been coming to this event for years and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I'd ever win this award," Parsons said in a pre-taped video acceptance speech. "All I ever wanted to do was be in NASCAR."

Parsons promised those in attendance that he'll not only be at Speedweeks in Daytona Beach in February, but also will return in his role for TNT during its six-race segment of the TV schedule in 2007.

But more importantly, Parsons said the recovery from his illness is on track and added that he's doing fine – surely the best news of all that came out of Thursday's luncheon.

November 30, 2006
But wait, there's more
By Jon Baum

NEW YORK – Tony Stewart's quips and Jimmie Johnson's repeated awards weren't the only highlights of Thursday's proceedings.

When accepting his award as champion crew chief, Chad Knaus gave heartfelt thanks to many within his team and NASCAR, including series director and old pal John Darby.

Knaus didn't, however, take time to thank NASCAR for giving him a bit of a break from the grueling schedule in the form of a mandated early-season vacation.

Matt Kenseth is funnier and has more personality than he's given credit for.

Hearing one-liners from the Stewarts and Kevin Harvicks of the world is nothing new, but Kenseth also joked around and looked very at-ease on stage when accepting his fast lap award.

Kenseth does often give short answers to questions, sometimes prefacing them with "I don't know."

After one such answer, one reporter said to him Wednesday during a Q&A, "You are pretty shy, aren't you?" to which he replied, "no."

Maybe some would think that simple answer showed lack of personality. I thought it was pretty funny.

When Allstate received its marketing award, it was the first time the sponsor was mentioned during the festivities – this, ironically, despite several references to the race the company sponsors.

You know, the one in Indianapolis?

The race was called "The Brickyard" a couple of times Thursday and the "Brickyard 400," as Stewart still refers to it as.

It wasn't until Allstate's award that the race's actual name, "Allstate 400 at the Brickyard," was uttered.

Kenseth and Johnson both took time to compliment Goodyear for providing good tires, pointing out that the company often receives negative attention when their tires fail but rarely receives kudos the rest of the time when they perform without a hitch.

Ironically, outside both Thursday's event and Wednesday's Times Square demonstration, there were demonstrators protesting Goodyear's use of replacement workers during a current worker strike.

A NASCAR spokesperson said the protestors did not contact NASCAR nor try to cause any trouble, and that they did have proper permits and, of course, the right to free speech.

November 29, 2006
Good Times
By Jerry Bonkowski

NEW YORK – NASCAR president Mike Helton made sure he laid down the law.

But this was not your typical prerace driver's meeting. Rather, this was the 10 drivers who made this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup taking a celebratory "One Lap Around Times Square" on Wednesday morning.

But before they climbed into their cars, Helton made sure there was no misunderstanding.

"The driver's meeting was very informative: no doughnuts, no burnouts – unless you want to go to jail," Kevin Harvick said.

If any of the Chase finalists failed to take heed, the NYPD had a plethora of officers standing by with handcuffs at the ready to cart any wayward offenders off to jail. This was not a publicity stunt; this was serious business.

Even fender rubbin' and bump drafting were verboten. Much to the fans' chagrin, there would be no smoky burnouts like those made by Ryan Newman or bump-and-run antics like those of several drivers during last year's lap around Times Square.

"I heard it was a little too eventful last year," Jeff Gordon said with a smile when asked his reaction to the publicity stunt that brought midtown traffic to a standstill for roughly 15 minutes during the morning rush hour in the heart of the Big Apple.

"It was awesome," said Gordon, who missed out in participating last year because he failed to qualify for the Chase.

Gordon even took the stance of a fan at one point. Being a part-time resident of New York, with a condo in the extremely expensive Central Park area, he's seen some of the best and worst of NYC traffic.

"I was impressed with how well-organized it was and the number of people that came out," he said. "Just to be able to pull off something like that was neat. I spend time in New York and those kinds of things are not easy to pull off, so it's very cool to be a part of it."

New look for Junior

When you're used to seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. either in a fire suit or T-shirt and jeans, it takes some getting used to seeing the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet all dressed up in his Sunday best.

But there was Earnhardt, looking all handsome and debonair in his pricey black suit, having changed out of his fire suit at the conclusion of the Times Square lap.

"I like coming to the banquet," said Earnhardt, who missed coming to New York last year after failing, like Gordon, to make the Chase.

As all 10 Chase finalists roared down Broadway and continued their roughly 1½-mile "lap," there was no question who the fan favorite was – not new champ Jimmie Johnson, but Earnhardt. Roughly a third of fans we saw decked out in NASCAR apparel wore red and white to honor their hero.

After missing last year's banquet, Earnhardt cherishes this season's performance even more. Sure, he finished fifth in the final standings, but he also qualified to be honored at Friday night's banquet.

"We have a lot of pride in being able to get up on that stage and be a part of the awards banquet and awards show," Earnhardt said. "Out of all the drivers, it's really a prideful thing to be able to get up there and be one of the guys in the top 10."

Earnhardt is sporting a new look of sorts. He just started growing a goatee that hasn't taken full root just yet.

"We didn't renew our Gillette Young Guns deal and I haven't been able to grow any facial hair in any consistency with the contract," he said. "When I was a Busch Series driver in '01 and '02, I grew a goatee from time to time. I kind of like to do that, and now I get to."

Earnhardt admitted that he's a bit nervous about Friday's banquet. Unlike most drivers, he wrote his own appreciation speech that he'll deliver to the more than 1,000 attendees as well as a national audience on TNT.

"[The banquet is] such a high-pressure deal," Earnhardt said. "You're trying to represent your own team and company. I chose to write my own speech and found out that I'm only one of a few. I thought everybody wrote their own speeches.

"So I'm a little nervous now that I'm going to represent everybody well with my speech and that everybody's acknowledged. It'll be fun to get up there; it'll be nice when it's over. Nobody really likes to get up on stage to talk to that many people, but we'll get through it."

The fine print

Gordon surprised quite a few attendees by walking off the stage during a special presentation of Tissot wristwatches to all 10 Chase drivers.

But the four-time Cup champ wasn't intentionally dissing the French luxury timepiece company. It wasn't personal, it was simply business: Gordon is a paid endorsee of rival watchmaker Tag Heuer.

At least he didn't call it Cingular Day

Dean Kessel, director of NASCAR marketing for Sprint-Nextel, made a big boo-boo when he thanked New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the city's massive cooperation in pulling off Wednesday's event.

The only problem is Kessel inadvertently gave thanks to "Mayor Greenberg." It was only after an aide standing nearby corrected Kessel that he finally got Bloomberg's name right.

November 19, 2006
Lights out
By Jon Baum

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The celebrating nearly was done, the interviews were complete, the champagne had been sprayed and the grandstands had all but emptied.

In some ways, the hours after the checkered flag fell on the Ford 400 and the 2006 season here at Homestead-Miami Speedway were just like any other postrace period.

Three hours after the race, the garages mostly had been cleared – though there were team haulers that remained – and all drivers not named Jimmie Johnson were long gone. Really, one might be surprised how fast everyone typically tries to get the heck out of Dodge (no, I'm not talking about Jamie McMurray or Casey Mears) after a Cup race.

And indeed, on this night, there was a postrace calm, a quiet, as a chill filled the Florida air.

But maybe there were a few more people milling about long after the race than usual. And maybe there were a few more lights on in the garage than usual.

Crewmen leave the track.
Crewmen leave the track. (AP)
And why shouldn't there be? Yes, it's a long season, and yes, many are somewhat relieved that the all-too-brief offseason finally is upon us. But despite that, it only seemed right that on this night, the final of the Cup season, that maybe not everyone should be in such a hurry to leave it all behind.

And so after 38-plus weeks of racing, there were some who didn't quite need to hit the road right away, instead deciding to savor the moments, to enjoy the party a few minutes more.

The entire facility still was lit, actually, and some of the people within had to remain. There were the track crews who broke down stages and barriers while other workers cleaned up the grandstands and disposed of champagne-soaked confetti (much of it black and yellow, surely thanks to Nextel) and other remnants of not one but two victory celebrations.

(Also littering the track were dozens of coupons for the South Florida Barbecue Festival. It takes place in February, in case you were wondering. Or even if you weren't.)

And a handful of remaining fans, some drinking beer, watched all the while.

Or maybe those were track workers on a break, taking in the ambiance.

For as exhilarating as the rush is that one feels while walking in the garage and pits or by the start-finish line on a Sunday morning in the hours before a race, an almost equally impactful calm emanates from the abandoned pit stalls and near-empty frontstretch long after the race winner has done his celebratory burnout.

Call it the calm after the storm.

This frontstretch actually still was home to the stage on which Johnson and his team celebrated their Cup championship, and many lingered by that stage. They waited for Johnson, Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick to return from their final media interviews and pose for more celebratory shots with various groups (representatives from Lowe's, Sprint/Nextel, Chevrolet, etc.), engage in more fist pumps into the air and perform more customary shouts of "wooo" that can be heard in victory lane from week to week.

Awards banquet aside, Johnson and Co. posing for those photos perhaps could be considered the final official act of the season.

It was NASCAR's own denouement

A couple hours later, that stage was empty – except, of course, for those dismantling it. Track workers still were tidying up the speedway, though most of the NASCAR officials and media had left. Knaus, meanwhile, could be seen enjoying a ride on a golf cart to some other part of the garage – or perhaps to transportation to take him, finally, out of the garage altogether.

All of the fans, save for those in the camping area outside the track who sat in or around their RVs and enjoyed a late beer or hot dog, were gone. And as I would discover shortly, even the traffic cones surrounding the track had been removed – and the police who had directed traffic all weekend were nowhere to be seen, as there no longer was any traffic to direct.

On my way out of the track, I stopped and pulled over just before driving through the tunnel and took one last look back. The grandstands were deserted, belying the gravity of what had happened in front of them just hours before when NASCAR crowned a new champion.

The track still was fully lit, as light beamed down upon those still breaking down that stage and still cleaning the pits. Upon those few fans still scrounging for a souvenir, like maybe a media pass or even a handful of confetti.

As this 2006 Nextel Cup season came to a close, the light beamed down on those of us who, by choice or circumstance, just had to linger a little longer.

November 18, 2006
What pressure?
By Jon Baum

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Walking into the garage just before the start of Happy Hour practice here at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday afternoon, one might have been a bit surprised at how calm everything was.

After all, this was the last practice session before Sunday's championship-deciding Ford 400. Bad setup? Quirky aero package? This was the final chance for teams to fix whatever might be plaguing their machines.

Then I realized I was on the other side of the Cup garage. You know, the one where cars nowhere near the Chase are housed.

The circus atmosphere one might expect to see indeed was present in front of one stretch of garage stalls, for within those consecutive stalls sat the 20, 48, 17, 8, 11 and 29 cars.

But it wasn't so much the teams themselves, but rather everything that surrounded them. Rows of fans, members of the media, photographers – all gathering around, looking for an autograph, a story, a shot worthy of placement above the fold.

It was especially crowded in garage stalls 23D and 24C, which sit adjacent to each other inside the track just beyond the point where Turn 4 morphs into the frontstretch.

Within those two stalls labored the crews of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car and Matt Kenseth's No. 17, respectively. The points leader and his closest competition.

The pressure is on the 48, according to No. 17 crew chief Robbie Reiser. But you wouldn't know it by looking at the Lowe's crew.

Throughout that final 45-minute practice session, Johnson's team seemed to be operating business as usual like this was just any other Saturday before any other race day.

There was no desperate running around, no shouting, no worried expressions from a crew whose driver holds a 63-point lead heading into Sunday's race. And despite the cameras capturing every moment of a conversation between Johnson and a crew member, Johnson himself seemed completely unfazed.

"I think everybody is real good," No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus said. "The car is running well. We're all happy with that. … Everybody is excited about the race.

"Jimmie's excited, He's driving the race track great. He's having a great time."

In fact, virtually the only sign of an overly serious demeanor among any on the 48 team was an understandably busy Knaus refusing an autograph request while making his way from the garage stall to his team's hauler.

Maybe, just maybe, there were more crew members gathered around the scoring monitor checking their driver's lap times than usual, and that was going on in both the 48 and 17 garages. But with the exception of Reiser and another 17 crewman running back and forth between the hauler and garage a couple of times (once to grab a part), there was no scurrying about, nothing frantic.

In fact, it seemed everything in the garage was hectic but the teams themselves.

"This is the way we operate every weekend," Reiser said. "All the teams take each race as serious as they can and do the best job they can. I don't think just because it's championship weekend you step up your game. To get here, we got to run at a high level. That's the way you operate."

But everything is on the line this weekend. Surely this is supposed to be the time teams are battling both each other and the stress of competing for a championship. Surely the 48 guys, whose championship it is to lose, are feeling a little stressed.

"Not really. No, we're pretty good," Knaus said. "We're really excited. We just don't have it. You know, stress is something you put on yourself. You can't get that from outside influences. I think we're all pretty clearheaded and ready to race."

While everything swirled around them, the drivers pulled out of the garage and onto the track, returning several minutes later so the teams could make the typical chassis changes and air pressure adjustments. A crewman from Johnson's team could be seen playfully punching a Roush Racing crew member (not from the 17) in the middle of it all.

The calm of Johnson's team perhaps stems from its position in points and the blazing streak it has been on over the past five or six weeks. Could the calm of Reiser's crew stem not only from professionalism, but also from a sense of defeat?

Reiser still laments his team’s struggles over the second half of the Chase, and he and Kenseth have remarked frequently that the cars simply aren't running as well as they did earlier in the season when Kenseth was frequently challenging (and sometimes holding) the points lead.

"It really doesn't even feel like a championship year," Reiser said. "More than anything right now I'd like to get our cars running better and not even worry about the points. Finishing second or finishing fifth in the points don't matter to me. Right now I want to get our cars running better. "

That doesn't mean he has completely abandoned hope of winning his second Cup championship with Kenseth.

"Realistically, as well as [Johnson and the 48] have run, I'm sure they aren't even worried about us," Reiser said. "But if they have any type of slip-up, we'll be right there."

There were other signs of normalcy in the garage on this day, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. being swarmed for autographs (one woman who managed to get his signature feigned fainting afterward) and fans nearly being knocked over by cars and nearly giving themselves concussions by stepping on an empty tire-carrying hand truck (imagine stepping on a rake, but heavier and made of all metal).

But the pace in the garage perhaps picked up just a notch toward the end of the session, as teams tried to milk as much as they could out of Happy Hour. This was especially evident when title contender Kevin Harvick pulled out of his garage stall at 3:18 p.m. local time to take a few more laps despite practice being scheduled to end at 3:20. Knowing this, a NASCAR official held up his hands and told Harvick to return to his pit stall.

Harvick ignored him and drove on by.

A member of Harvick's crew had a brief conversation with the official. A minute or two later, the roar of the engines from the track ceased as practice came to an end. In that minute or two, Harvick maybe got one lap at speed. Maybe.

It's a sign that every lap counts, and indeed the 17 and 48 cars were among the first out on track for practice, easily beating the likes of Harvick's No. 29 and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 out of the garage.

Championship weekend or not, high stakes or not, that's just the way these teams operate.

"I don't need to tell Matt how to do anything [like avoid the hype]," Reiser said. "I don't need to tell any of these guys. They all know their jobs and what they got to do.

"That's why they're here. This is the top level of racing and they're on a top level team. They perform that way and they don't need my guidance for that."

November 18, 2006
For love of the race
By Jon Baum

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – We shouldn’t be surprised by Mark Martin anymore.

But we are.

What is supposed to be his final weekend with Roush Racing perhaps won't be after all.

More on that later.

If this is their final weekend together, it's shaping up to be a terrific farewell.

As newly-crowned Craftsman Truck Series champion Todd Bodine performed burnouts and donuts in his Toyota on the Homestead-Miami Speedway frontstretch (he actually came somewhat close to one of Martin's crew members on the track), Martin rolled his truck into victory lane.

No big deal, right? After all, it was his series-leading sixth win of the season in just 14 starts.

But the scene in victory lane said it all. No, it wasn't about Martin's crew jumping up and down in celebration, but rather beaming truck owner Jack Roush congratulating Martin while his longtime driver still sat in his truck. Literally and figuratively.

After nearly 20 years together, Martin and Roush part ways following this weekend's festivities. It made that moment in victory lane one to remember, as Friday night's win could be (and probably will be) Martin's final victory during his long and storied tenure with Roush Racing.

"This is the storybook ending … almost," Martin said. "It would be pretty incredible [to win Sunday's Cup race].

"This is sweet. Jack and I have done this a lot together. This is our last chance. For a while, anyway."

Martin somewhat surprisingly (only somewhat, considering how many times he has changed his mind in the last couple of years) left the door open for an eventual return to the Roush fold, someday, somehow.

"You never know what'll happen in the future," Martin said. "I've seen a lot of crazy things happen."

Crazy like a retirement postponed. Crazy like yet another retirement curbed back. Crazy like plans to run full-time in a Roush truck abandoned.

Standing in victory lane about 20 feet away from Martin Friday night, it was clear he still is enjoying himself. He emerged from the Roush Racing truck with a big smile on his face and raised six fingers in the air, signifying his six truck wins. He turned to his team and made that same gesture, which they enthusiastically, loudly returned to him.

It's that love of competing, of winning, that keeps Martin going.

It's Martin's prerogative to change his mind, and if he wants to keep racing in Cup, good for him. And if his deal with MB2/Ginn works best for him, so be it. There should be nobody pushing him out the door, and if he's not sure he wants to walk through it yet – or which door he even is walking toward – what's the big deal?

And so Martin will keep changing his mind, keep altering his plans to find situations that suit him best. And after all of the changes to his plans over the past couple of years, one might think Martin's latest proclamation wouldn't be shocking to Jack Roush.

But it was.

"I've learned that sometimes the things he [Martin] says publicly I haven't heard privately," Roush said.

But from Roush's point of view, the possibility of working with Martin again was a positive development.

"I would look forward to negotiating with Mark for a return to the Ford world and to Roush Racing," Roush said. "Mark is leaving Roush Racing but he's not leaving Jack as a friend."

Any chance of these two reuniting someday certainly isn't hurt by the fact that Martin leaves the Roush camp with nothing but good feelings.

"This has been the time of my life," Martin said. "Driving [this] truck has been the highlight of the year, for sure."

November 13, 2006
Show some respect
By Jon Baum

AVONDALE, Ariz. – When his name was called before the race, the crowd (as usual) here at Phoenix roundly booed him.

Such is life for Jimmie Johnson. Maybe it's the allegedly whiny attitude, the clean-cut image, the cheating allegations (against his crew chief, not him), the wrecks he has caused in past years. Or maybe it's all that combined with the loads of success he is enjoying.

Whatever the reason, Johnson is not a fan favorite.

Which means there are plenty of NASCAR fans who aren't too happy right now.

Johnson made a statement on Sunday at Phoenix. No, he didn't win the race. And yes, a mistake on pit road temporarily knocked him a few spots back from the leaders.

But Johnson showed that right now, with just one race remaining in the Chase, he and his No. 48 team are the best out there.

Johnson started 29th and wasted no time charging forward, reaching the top 10 in less than 40 laps. He then worked his way to the front and took the lead from Kevin Harvick with a nifty move through lapped traffic.

Like him or not, one would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge that Johnson was putting on quite a show via impressive driving with an equally impressive car.

No, the No. 48 wasn't the only good car out there on Sunday, as Johnson couldn't quite beat Kevin Harvick off a late restart (Harvick went on to win, completing the season sweep at PIR), but Johnson's second-place finish was enough to extend his lead to 63 points over second-place Matt Kenseth.

It also was enough to cement Johnson's status as being the driver to beat for this year's championship with just one race remaining.

Heading to next Sunday's season finale at Homestead, the top five in the standings are separated by 115 points. And anything can happen, as a wreck or a pit road speeding penalty could mean the difference between Johnson holding serve and winning the title and falling short.

But barring such a circumstance, it's difficult to expect Johnson to falter. His last five finishes? Second on a 1½-miler, first on a short track, second on another 1½-miler, second at yet another 1½-miler, and second on Phoenix's flat one-mile oval. And in the race before this run, Johnson would have won or finished second at Talladega if not for the last-lap incident with teammate Brian Vickers.

Tony Stewart went on such a run last summer, and it helped fans warm up to him. Of course, the ground had been sufficiently softened by numerous TV, internet and newspaper stories about Stewart supposedly being a kinder and gentler Smoke, one who moved back home, learned to relax and had matured.

Sure, Stewart reverts to the Terrible Tony of old now and then, but once the celebratory fence climbs began, many undecided fans were sold and Stewart suddenly became one of the more popular drivers in NASCAR.

Johnson is close to duplicating some of Stewart's success (the season finale at Homestead where Johnson can clinch the title? Yes, it's another 1½-mile track), but he has no Stewart-like gimmick. And forcing one probably won't help; Kurt Busch's silly snow angels are proof of that.

Rather, Johnson could aim to emulate his teammate Jeff Gordon.

Sure, there are legions of fans who despise the No. 24 more than the No. 48 or any other car, but the mixed crowd reaction to Gordon's introduction Sunday at Phoenix was telling, as the cheers might have just barely edged the boos.

No, it's not the same experience as every other track, but it does show that the four-time champ has his fair share of supporters. And those who don't like Gordon, well, most will admit that the guy's got plenty of talent.

That is something Gordon and Johnson have in common.

So while Johnson might or might not ever be the most well-liked driver as far as fans are concerned, he should, like Gordon, become one of the most respected.

Whiner or not, Johnson is earning that respect with his performance and results – which will include, barring some bad luck, his first Cup championship next weekend.

Of course, if that bad luck does occur, it's safe to say there will be plenty of NASCAR fans not too broken up.

November 11, 2006
Growing pains
By Bob Margolis

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. are just the new kids on the block – the two guys from open wheel racing. And they've both found the NASCAR neighborhood to be a whole lot different than where they came from.

Montoya isn't a lightweight. He has battled successfully against 32 of the world's best open wheel drivers to win the Indy 500, and the Colombian ace has dueled wheel-to-wheel with arguably the greatest Formula One driver ever – Michael Schumacher – and won.

But when it comes to racing against the middle of the pack in the Busch Series, Montoya might have met his match – at least for now.

As he walked back to his hauler Saturday afternoon after the Busch race here at Phoenix, a frustrated (about his race car) and angry (about the competition) Montoya was his usual talkative self.

His car was a handful for 200 laps.

Race conditions were overcast and cool, dramatically different than during practice when it was sunny and much warmer. Even with fresh tires, Montoya struggled with the handling. And for that, crew chief Brad Parrott took the blame.

"I just missed on the setup," said Parrott, whose driver finished 20th Saturday. "It wasn't anything Juan did. It's my project to make the car good for him and I just didn't do a good job."

Parrott added that the team based its race setup on a 40-lap run during Friday's practice, but during Saturday's race there weren't any runs that lengthy.

Montoya's car was one issue. The competition, well, that was quite another.

"You start passing these guys and it seems as though they don't see you … they play dumb," Montoya said. "When you run up front, the guys up front run a lot cleaner and smarter. The guys in the back are just too dumb."

Montoya explained that although he might be a rookie in NASCAR, he certainly isn't a neophyte to racing and isn't at all pleased with his reception into the NASCAR club.

"I probably have more experience than everybody on this grid," Montoya said in a matter-of-fact manner. "You know, I've driven more things than anybody here."

Montoya says he's quickly learning about racing in NASCAR and how to give and take. He added that when someone has a good run on him, he lets them take the position. However, when the situation is the opposite, he finds that his on-track rivals aren't as giving.

"He's going to have to gain everybody's respect," Parrott said. "I'm trying not to let him race around the backmarkers."

Parrott offered that those drivers in the back of the field have been around for several years and have run in the back of the field that entire time. Then along comes Montoya, who within just a few races' time already is running in the top 20.

"They're just frustrated and there's a lot of blocking going on," Parrott said. "That's why we race full-bodied cars so that you can do that."

Despite his less-than-warm welcome in the Busch Series, Montoya isn't planning on going anywhere anytime soon, and he wants the other drivers in the series to know that.

"I'm trying to be as friendly as I can be and whether they like it or not, I'm here for the long run," Montoya said. "So it's their problem, not mine."

After almost immediately sinking to the bottom, Hornish survived his jump into the deep end on Saturday, recovering nicely and emerging unscathed.

His first competitive laps in a Busch car might have been some of the more memorable time he's ever spent in a race car. Throughout the race, Hornish repeatedly told crew chief Matt Gimbel that his car was either so tight that he couldn't turn it, or so loose that it was about to wreck.

And coming from his lighter Indy car with its wider tires, Hornish's afternoon was reminiscent of the scene from "Days of Thunder" when Tom Cruise's driver character was taught how not to destroy his tires by Robert Duvall's crew chief character.

"These cars have less tire and more weight than what you're used to," explained the Duvall character. "Give me 50 laps your way and then give me 50 laps my way and I'll show you the difference."

Hornish's limited experience behind the wheel of a stock car was obvious, as he used up tires quicker than expected. And not realizing (until too late) that his tires make up a large part of the handling of the car, Hornish found himself with a good race car for a few laps and a really bad one for the rest.

He ran around 30th position for much of the race until he was caught up in someone else's wreck on lap 185.

Hornish seemed pleased with his results while at the same time acknowledging that it was going to be a steep learning curve for him in stock cars.

"I don't really feel that I should do well yet," said Hornish, an Indy 500 winner. "I don't expect to come in here and win, by any means."

It's easy to compare these two drivers, although any comparison at this stage would be completely unfair to both.

Montoya's learning process is being handled in a manner that allows him to slowly get a feel for the heavier and less-responsive stock cars. Starting in ARCA and then progressing first to a Busch car and then to a Cup car has in the past proven to be the best path to take. Montoya will benefit from his experience and it will allow his natural talents to take over.

Hornish, meanwhile, has been pushed off the diving board and expected to swim to the side of the pool – with his clothes on.

But given a swimsuit and a couple lessons in proper breathing and Hornish too will end up swimming like a fish – or maybe a shark.

November 10, 2006
Tire games
By Dan Beaver

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Watching on television, one of the first impressions fans get is how fast pit stops occur. The caution flag waves, 43 drivers dive onto pit road, and the crew swarms the car to slap four fresh Goodyears on. The car storms onto the track, blazes up to speed, and when a caution waves again a few laps later, the drivers dive back onto pit road and do it all over again.

The ballet on pit road is certainly impressive, but where do all those tires come from?

This week, Goodyear will mount up to 3,000 tires for the Nextel Cup series alone, and drivers will use anywhere from 2,000 to all 3,000 before Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 here at Phoenix is complete. The logistics of getting all these round, rubber things mounted and stacked is massive.

Goodyear uses eight stations to mount the tires and another five to balance them. Once the tires are mounted, they have to be stacked outside the garage area. This is not as simple a process as one might imagine.

The garage is about 90 feet wide, which is enough to hold 30 rows of tires stacked six high. If you have ever seen a folksy western in which a fire brigade tries to save a burning barn, you can visualize how this is done. After the tires are balanced, one man rolls the Goodyear to another outside. This man turns the tire 90 degrees and rolls it to another man at the corner of the building.

Ninety feet is a long way to roll a tire, and if it gets loose one of the 43 cars zooming in and out of the garage is likely to run over it, so two men are required to relay the tire to its destination. There, a fifth man stacks them.

By the end of the day on Friday, this is a massive mountain of tires, but by the end of the weekend, it will be a molehill as nearly all those tires get mounted on one of the 43 stockers.

November 9, 2006
Falling short and wrapping up
By Jonathan Baum

AVONDALE, Ariz. – For all the hype about the Chase's final two races, it was a relatively quiet Thursday at Phoenix International Raceway.

There's good reason, of course, as the weekend's Cup and Busch action wasn't set to begin until Friday.

Motors were running, however, as the Craftsman Truck Series and the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division's Southwest Series held practice and/or qualifying sessions during the afternoon. And while some fans turned out, the speedway was a ghost town compared to the mobs that will pack this place over the weekend.

After all, on a Saturday or Sunday, Mark Martin would have dozens of fans chasing him through the garage and onto pit road seeking a picture or autograph rather than the one woman who stalked the driver of the No. 6 Ford truck.

Actually, a group of fans on this Thursday did manage to find Johnny Benson after a truck practice session, and he happily obliged autograph requests.

Benson seemed in good spirits, though he would be justified if that weren't the case.

Truck points leader Todd Bodine has struggled over the past few races, but Benson has suffered mechanical problems each of the last two weeks at Atlanta and Texas, robbing the standings' second-place driver of opportunities to tighten the title race or perhaps even take the points lead. Instead, Benson finds himself 137 points back with just two races remaining.

But Benson is being philosophical, as it's been bad luck rather than bad performance that has all but dashed his title hopes.

"We don't feel [bad] because we're performing on the race track," Benson said. "We were in good position to capitalize on Todd not running good. We were running good. Parts failures are something that are a little out of our control. We hate it. It just seems like ill timing, but we can't complain about the performance."

At one point during the Atlanta race, Benson mathematically was the in-race points leader. But a drive shaft failure changed all that, and Benson, who had led 20 laps, finished 29th. Texas didn't go much better.

So here they are at Texas, with the fact that their pit stalls sat right next to each other during practice belying the reality of Benson's fading view of Bodine's bumper. (Somewhat ironically, Bodine literally ran from his truck toward the garage as soon as the session ended). Sure, Benson technically isn't out of it, but he's not expecting any miracles.

"Now [Bodine] can go into coast mode and not really have to worry," Benson said. "When we were putting pressure on him, it was going to our favor.

"They've had a great year, we've had a great year. Throw away two of his bad races, throw away a couple of our bad races, everything would be pretty close. Not complaining about the year at all. It's been great."

Benson believes his Toyota truck team won't miss a step next season and should be considered a title contender for 2007. But next year also marks Toyota's entry into Nextel Cup.

Benson, who has made 271 career Cup starts (he won at Rockingham in 2002), isn't part of Toyota's immediate Cup plans – but he's certainly available to make a cameo.

"That's for them to decide," he said. "If they want me to come do it, I'd definitely do it."

So Benson wants to get behind the wheel of a Cup car again?


Thursday night's Konica Minolta "125" marks the last race ever for the AutoZone Elite Southwest Series. NASCAR announced early this year that it was abandoning the Elite Divisions.

Drivers such as Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch once ran in the series, which was among several designed to serve as a NASCAR farm system. But according to NASCAR, this part of the system has flaws.

"The Elite Division is no longer doing what it was intended to do, which is to develop teams and drivers while providing profitable special events for NASCAR tracks," NASCAR said in a press release Q&A earlier this season. "While some drivers have advanced their careers through the Elite Division, it has become increasingly difficult for NASCAR’s member tracks to hold these events."

One driver not happy about the series' demise is 44-year-old Californian M.K. Kanke.

A lean and tall man (he's six-foot-six) wearing a dark cowboy hat on this day, from a distance Kanke might be mistaken for Richard Petty. And he does have something in common with The King, as Kanke is this series' all-time win leader.

Kanke has competed against (and beaten) guys such as Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Allison, and he's raced with plenty of drivers who have made their way to NASCAR's highest levels.

"I think they're giving up their base," Kanke said of NASCAR's call to dissolve the Elite series. "A lot of guys came to Cup from here … That's [NASCAR's] decision."

This garage on Thursday was filled with names unfamiliar to most NASCAR fans, though some – like Burney Lamar and Leilani Munter – will ring a bell. The cars more or less resemble Nextel Cup cars, but then there are teams with slogans along the lines of "See if you can keep up!"

In other words, it has a minor league feel – in a positive way. But now many of these drivers will have to look elsewhere to race. As roads to its major series, NASCAR touts its Dodge Weekly Series, the Grand National Division and modified tours as effective routes for up-and-coming drivers. NASCAR also points to several regional series or local tracks where the current Southwest cars can be run with minimal modifications.

But Kanke isn't so sure these drivers will find other places to race so easily.

"Ask me [that] question in 10 years and we'll see what happens," he said.

Even without the Elite Divisions, NASCAR won't exactly be short on drivers.

"They're going to end up taking their open wheel guys and all kinds of different guys, so it's no big deal [to them]," Kanke said. Indeed, IRL champ and Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. will attempt to make his first Busch Series start right here this weekend, and former F1 and Champ Car driver Juan Pablo Montoya already is on his way to Nextel Cup next season (as is Champ Car race winner A.J. Allmendinger). "It's just not going to be coming from NASCAR. NASCAR I think wants a wider, broader area of drivers so they can get more fans."

As for Kanke, he'll still be racing – with a caveat.

"I'm not going to do anything NASCAR," he said.

November 6, 2006
Last ride
By Jerry Bonkowski

FORT WORTH, Texas – While he had hoped for a higher finish than 36th in the final Nextel Cup race of his career, Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway wasn't about winning or even a top-10 finish for Terry Labonte.

Rather, it was all about the 200,000 fans in the stands thanking Labonte, and him returning the favor. Regardless of where he wound up, win or lose, this was Terry Labonte's day.

"It's been a great ride and a lot of fun," Labonte said. "I've really enjoyed the series all these years. I guess everything comes to an end sometime, and I've been doing this for a long time. I've been very fortunate in my career, I've been with some really good teams, have been able to win two championships [and] some races and had some good runs.

"It's amazing that we came this far. I never took anything for granted. I just did my best week after week."

During his postrace press conference, race winner and defending Cup champion Tony Stewart smiled fondly when asked to reflect on what Labonte means to him.

"I heard him speak more [Sunday] in the driver's meeting than I think I've heard him speak in the entire time I've been in Cup," Stewart quipped. "He's just a guy of few words, he's soft-spoken and he lets his actions speak for him. I've always had a huge amount of respect for him. He never said much, but you always knew where you stand with him."

About the only time Labonte choked up during the day was in a prerace speech where he thanked team owner Rick Hendrick for all his years of devotion. Labonte also was going to thank Hendrick's family when he abruptly stopped, remembering several Hendrick family members that were killed in a plane crash two years ago near Martinsville, Va.

"I just couldn't do it," he said, slightly choking up again.

But as much as that pained him, Labonte also displayed some of the wry humor he long has been noted for. When asked if he would consider racing in a theoretical senior tour if one was ever created by NASCAR, Labonte smiled broadly.

"I hope they run senior cars, too," he said, drawing a big laugh from the media. "I know it'd be great if they had it on short tracks, maybe half-miles, something like that. I'd probably do pretty good at it because I'd be one of the youngest oldest guys there."

Drizzle delayed the start of Sunday's race for 50 minutes, but it didn't dampen Labonte's spirit or the activities that honored him. As he and wife Kim rode around the track in a Corvette convertible, fans gave him a standing ovation.

Along the frontstretch, track president Eddie Gossage presented Labonte the keys to a brand new 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. There was bit of irony, though – even though it's a "Texas Edition" Silverado, the maroon-colored truck actually was built in Canada.

Among other honors:

  • Daughter Kristy gave a special "dad, start your engine" command prior to the rest of the field getting the start engines command.

  • NASCAR gave Labonte special permission to run several pace laps at the front of the field alongside son Justin, who was driving the same 1978 Chevrolet that his father drove to victory at Darlington in 1980. Texas Terry then dropped back to his designated starting spot when the green flag fell to start the race.

  • Team owner Rick Hendrick told Labonte before the race that he was giving his retiring driver the car Labonte raced on Sunday, complete with a special paint scheme commemorating Labonte's storied 28-year Cup career.

    Labonte, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, climbed out of his car after the race, looked around and walked back to his hauler for the final time.

    "I'm pretty sure you won't see me behind the wheel of a car anymore," Labonte said. "I've been doing this for a long time and been very fortunate over the years. I was able to go out when I wanted to go out, not because of some circumstances that I had no control over.

    "I'm actually looking forward to tomorrow. I'm not quite sure exactly what I'm going to be doing, but that's where we are."

    November 4, 2006
    Interested visitors
    By Bob Margolis

    FORT WORTH, Texas – You never know who will show up in the NASCAR garage.

    During Saturday's Nextel Cup Happy Hour practice session, open wheel veteran Dario Franchitti was an observer on top of Jeff Burton's hauler.

    His visit was purely business. Franchitti shares a business relationship with one of Burton's team sponsors and the Scotsman was invited to attend and speak at a dinner in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

    I had a chance to chat with Franchitti, and our conversation turned to his future. There had been some speculation during the summer that Franchitti perhaps was interested in a NASCAR ride.

    Obviously the interest was in passing – or maybe a way to leverage a better deal from his current team – as Franchitti acknowledged that he would be back in his Indy Racing League ride with Andretti Green Racing for the entire 2007 season.

    He also expects to race the entire season in the American Le Mans Series with AGR teammate Bryan Herta in AGR's recently announced Acura/Courage program.

    Might there be a NASCAR ride somewhere down the road for Franchitti?

    "Not in the immediate future," Franchitti said.

    Also visiting both the Nextel Cup and Busch Series garages was 18-year-old sports car phenom Colin Braun.

    Braun, who hails from nearby Ovalo, Texas, already has made a name for himself in sports cars as the youngest driver ever to win a professional sports car event.

    Now he has set his sights on a career in NASCAR.

    "This is where I want to be," Braun said. "This [has] the best drivers that there are and that’s who I want to race against."

    Braun was one of 16 who took part in last month's GM Driver Evaluation program, which tested drivers from across the country on three different types of tracks. Word is that Braun did very well in his first time in a stock car.

    Although he is set to once again drive for Grand American Series champion Krohn Racing in 2007, he'd like to get his NASCAR career started by running the Busch Series road course events at Mexico City, Montreal and Watkins Glen.

    Braun hopes that a good showing in one of those races would spark interest in a team giving him a full-time Busch ride.

    Word in the garage is that there were many very unhappy faces in the Red Bull camp on Friday after A.J. Allmendinger failed to qualify for Sunday's Dickies 500.

    Sources within the team say Allmendinger's qualifying speed, which was an embarrassingly slow 10 mph off the pole speed, raised some questions about the Dodge cars and engines the team has been using.

    The team now is finished for the 2006 season. Their original plan was to run only three races this season in preparation for their official debut with Toyota Camrys next year, but they failed to qualify (once due to rain) each time.

    The team will focus on a rigorous testing schedule for Allmendinger, who now is scheduled to make his Cup debut in the Daytona 500 in February 2007.

    November 3, 2006
    Name game
    By Dan Beaver

    FORT WORTH, Texas – On any given race weekend there are thousands of people wandering around the garage area. Navigating the paddock requires meandering in and out of secured areas and every time we do, we make certain that the correct credential is facing the guards at the gate.

    There are some folks however, who by the shear, overpowering force of their personality one supposes would be immune to getting carded. Kenny Wallace has one of the most outgoing personalities in stock cars. He races full-time in both the Nextel Cup and Busch series, appears on weekly television shows, and is probably best known for a laugh that borders on maniacal. But perhaps he is not as famous in the world at large as the stock car faithful believe.

    On Friday morning, the garage opened at 7 a.m. local time, and soon after – while most of the drivers were still wiping the sleep from their eyes – Wallace was just returning from a visit to the media center and on his way back into the Busch garage to prepare for the first practice session on the day. Ever-diligent, one of the guards made him pull out his wallet and display his credentials.

    Perhaps Wallace was interviewing for a new American Express commercial.

    November 2, 2006
    Kyle's ride
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    FORT WORTH, Texas – Being the father of two newly licensed teenage girls, I get very uncomfortable when they drive and I'm relegated to the passenger seat.

    It's a fatherly control issue – not to mention 33 years of my own driving experience versus only a few months for them. I can't help but be critical. "Watch out for that other car!" What else can I say?

    That being the case, you can only imagine how I felt Thursday when I was in the front seat of a brand new 2007 Chevrolet Silverado – driven by a lead-footed 21-year-old male, full of testosterone, braggadocio and talent – running around the racing surface of Texas Motor Speedway at close to 100 mph.

    But this wasn't just any newly turned adult male behind the wheel. This was Nextel Cup driver Kyle Busch.

    As part of a promotion introducing the Silverado as official pace vehicle for this weekend's NASCAR Trucks, Busch and Cup events at TMS, I had the opportunity to take about a half-dozen hot laps around the track with Busch. Several other reporters turned laps with Cup rookies Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.

    It wasn't easy trusting Busch – nicknamed "Shrub" – at the wheel of a high-performance race truck, as I could just imagine him secretly smirking to himself and being ready to make me eat my words for all the bad things I've written about him over the years. But hey, I've also written a lot of good words – a lot more than bad.

    And believe me, I reminded him of that right from the start.

    Thankfully, Busch cut me some slack. He made our time together seem like a couple of old friends enjoying a Sunday drive in the country.

    OK, so I admit I got a little nervous and my voice rose a couple of octaves when Busch came dangerously close – or so I thought – to the backstretch wall. In reality, he probably still had another couple of feet before door met concrete.

    It didn't help that Busch switched trucks just before I joined him because he had gone so fast in the first truck he drove that morning that some of the lettering decals blew off in the wind.

    At one point, when we were coming off Turn 2, I turned to Busch and meekly asked, "So, what are we doing? 160 [mph]? 170?"

    He smiled and looked at me as if I was some scaredy cat. "Heck, we're just barely up to 95," Busch laughed.

    I don't know why, but I can do 90 mph in my own car on an open stretch of road and feel like I'm just poking along. But riding along with Busch, I felt a whole lot different – like we were approaching the sound barrier.

    Speed aside, what started out as a rather uneventful ride suddenly took on a whole different complexion when Hamlin joined us on the track. Suddenly, our leisurely ride became competitive, as if we were in a race.

    First, Hamlin pulled ahead of us, and then we took him on the inside and passed by. Next thing I knew, Hamlin was inches away from our back bumper, drafting. I was just waiting for the next natural progression – bump drafting – but Hamlin remained the gracious, gentlemanly driver.

    Thanks, Denny … and my health insurance company thanks you.

    Then, as we were coming out of Turn 4 in one of our closing laps, Busch put the squeeze on Hamlin, running him up close to the wall – possibly a prelude to what we'll see in Sunday's Dickies 500.

    I tell you, watching close racing on TV is nothing compared to side-by-side racing on a race track. I thought for sure we were all soon going to be headed to the infield care center – and the Chevy folks would have been mighty ticked about their destroyed pace vehicles – after what seemed like would be an inevitable wreck.

    Fortunately, there was no contact or even trading paint. Yes, we were racin', but we weren't rubbin', son!

    As we turned back on pit road for the end of the ride, Busch and Hamlin pulled alongside each other again and had wide smiles on their faces. If they wanted to put a scare into several reporters with their jousting, they accomplished it.

    Boys will be boys, I guess.

    Actually, any apprehension I initially felt had melted away with each lap. In fact, I harkened back to the time my younger daughter first experienced the thrill of "driving" her little plastic kiddy car about 15 years ago, and her cute as a button reaction:

    "More, more, more!" she screamed with joy.

    Frankly, I couldn't have said it any better Thursday. I just wish Busch would have let me drive for awhile while he rode shotgun. Then again, maybe he didn't trust my driving ability as much as I trusted his.

    October 13, 2006
    A quick history lesson
    By Bob Margolis

    CONCORD, N.C. – You've got to hand it to NASCAR's newest millionaire team owner Bobby Ginn.

    He's definitely making an impression.

    But it's not clear exactly what kind of impression he's making.

    Signing Mark Martin (reportedly for big money) to drive the U.S. Army car next season is all about putting that team's program back on track and the 01 car into the winner's circle – not to mention benefiting from the attention and prominence one of the sport's most popular drivers brings.

    It's not much of a stretch to assume that it's also to keep the Army happy. After all, finishing around 30th every other week can't be putting a big smile on the face of the guy in the Pentagon who's writing the big check for the program.

    The U.S. Army-sponsored Top Fuel dragster in NHRA competition has won two titles in a row and is poised to win its third this season – all on a budget far less than what is being spent in NASCAR.

    But I'm puzzled by the announcement of motorcycle megastar Ricky Carmichael signing a (reportedly) long-term deal as a development driver with MB2/Ginn. Carmichael has never driven a stock car and is coming to NASCAR because it's been a dream of his.

    His name had being linked to both Evernham Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing in the past, but now, for no apparent reason other than big dollars (which Carmichael insists isn't a factor – yeah, right!), he signs with MB2, which has no driver development program, but seemingly tons of dollars to spend.

    The only driver in NASCAR who doesn't need the money is Paul Menard, who, to his credit, doesn't act that way.

    MB2/Ginn apparently has chosen to ignore all of the drivers that took part in the recent GM Driver Evaluation Program – several of which could easily jump into a Busch program next season – and instead tapped someone with absolutely no experience in a four-wheel race vehicle.

    To be clear, there's nothing wrong with giving arguably the best motorcycle racer in America a shot in NASCAR. However, Carmichael is years away from coming to any of NASCAR's premier leagues.

    So what, then, is the purpose of signing Carmichael now, other than for a P.T. Barnum-like spectacle?

    It's a slap in the face to the dozens of more experienced and better-qualified weekend warriors in America who race their hearts out in their late model stock cars, winning races and yearning for the opportunity for someone to pay attention and maybe give them a shot at stardom.

    Besides, if MB2/Ginn was looking for a talented cyclist with four-wheel experience, why not tap Travis Pastrana instead? Pastrana, known for his freestyle motocross abilities, has competed in a rally car for Subaru.

    History tells us that the successful team owners in NASCAR (Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs among them) built their organizations from the ground up and spent many years and millions of dollars to reach the level of success they currently enjoy.

    Ginn says he's in NASCAR because owning a race team has always been a dream of his. With absolutely no knowledge of the NASCAR business and with team CEO Jay Frye as his guide, Ginn is spending millions of dollars on his dream.

    Several seasoned veterans in the NASCAR garage tell me that the Ginn saga reminds them of J.D. Stacy, a free-spending team owner from the early 1980s.

    Stacy was a coal-mining millionaire who came to NASCAR with pockets full of cash. In 1982, he had seven cars entered in the Daytona 500.

    Stacy quickly spent his money and then left a trail of lawsuits.

    Dale Earnhardt actually drove a few races for Stacy early in his career – as did, ironically, soon-to-be MB2/Ginn driver Mark Martin.

    October 7, 2006
    Why we're here
    By Bob Margolis

    TALLADEGA, Ala. – Between Juan Pablo Montoya's stock car debut, Mark Martin's announced defection from Ford to Chevy, NASCAR changing the restrictor plate for Sunday's UAW-Ford 500, Richard Childress announcing a major change in primary sponsors and David Gilliland winning the pole for Sunday's race, it's quite possible to forget that there still is a Chase going on.

    More on the Chase in a bit.

    But first …

    This was supposed to be just another edge-of-your-seat restrictor plate race for the Cup teams. That all changed when Jeff Gordon ripped off a 198.689-mph lap during Friday's practice session here at Talladega.

    At the end of the day on Friday, it seemed everyone in the Cup garage knew there was a change coming – even though NASCAR officials told reporters that they weren't planning one.

    Defending race winner Dale Jarrett had his suspicions.

    "I saw those speeds and I told my coach driver, 'We'll not be using those restrictor plates in the race,'" Jarrett said.

    Polesitter David Gilliland's crew chief Todd Parrott could see the plate change coming from a mile away.

    "We saw a 48.30[-second lap time] come up on the screen and we knew that was fast," Parrott said. "When we saw a few guys running .20s, we knew that something would be done."

    And indeed, a change was made, as NASCAR mandated the use of restrictor plates with smaller holes in them, thus further restricting air flow and reducing horsepower and speed.

    NASCAR director of competition Robin Pemberton talked about the speeds being beyond NASCAR's "comfort zone."

    In explaining what that zone was, Pemberton said that when a stock car is not traveling in the direction in which it is intended to travel – in other words, in an accident situation – and its speed is in excess of 175 mph, it is likely to become airborne.

    That, obviously, is not a good thing.

    Pemberton added that while a car is spinning out of control, it usually scrubs 20 mph off its original speed.

    Some quick math shows that the comfort zone ends at around 195 mph.

    Friday's speeds exceeded that number.

    NASCAR made a good call.

    One driver had no idea they were traveling that fast, while another wasn't too happy with the decision.

    "From a driver's standpoint, we're all going in the same direction, so there is no speed that is too fast," said Jeff Gordon, who starts fourth in Sunday's race.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't think NASCAR should have made the change.

    "[NASCAR] kind of threw us under the bus there with that change," said Earnhardt, who qualified 33rd. "We ain't got no practice, so we don't really know what to do.

    "That stuff right there shouldn't be going on – especially in the Chase. We should have some practice or something. I don't think this is a very fair situation."

    Still, a quick survey of crew chiefs in the garage revealed that most were expecting the decision and were able to react quickly to the change.

    "It's not a big deal," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. "We're prepared for something like this. The downside is that it's going to put us all in big packs, which probably isn't going to be good."

    Hendrick Motorsports director of at-track engine support Scott Maxim said it could have been worse.

    "It would have been a bigger story if [NASCAR] came to us … and told us we had to run a different right-side tire."

    When Richard Childress Racing announced Saturday that Shell Oil and its Pennzoil brand would replace GM Goodwrench as primary sponsor for Kevin Harvick's Monte Carlo starting next year, it ended speculation over who would get one of the hottest sponsor deals floating around NASCAR for the past year.

    Shell has been involved in all forms of motorsport for years but recently has kept a low profile in American racing. Several big-name teams were in the running for the Shell deal, but RCR's recent resurgence may have had a strong hand in the organization landing what is believed to be a top-dollar package.

    And now, the Chase

    Points leader Jeff Burton was reminded that in the first two editions of the Chase, the driver leading after the first three races (Kurt Busch in '04 and Tony Stewart in '05) went on to win the title.

    Both Stewart and Busch also had narrower leads.

    Burton was nonchalant about it, reminding reporters that other drivers weren't going to give up just because of that statistic. He then gave the old "we race one race at a time" speech and added that like some of other drivers already have, his team could experience some bad luck.

    "What happens on Sunday will happen," Burton said. "The sun is going to come up Monday morning. There are bigger things in life."

    Right now, isn't the championship one of those bigger things in life?

    One can appreciate Burton's come-as-it-may attitude, but isn't the drive to win the main reason why he and the other 42 drivers lay it on the line every weekend?

    Or is Burton just happy to be making a nice paycheck?

    October 6, 2006
    Truth and consequences
    By Bob Margolis

    TALLADEGA, Ala. – It started out like a normal weekend in Talladega.

    Of course, there was buzz surrounding the Chase and the new track surface at Talladega. And, of course, Juan Pablo Montoya was set to make his stock car debut.

    These were all important stories that everyone was talking about, but to be honest, it was nothing out of the ordinary.

    Then all hell broke loose.

    When word got out Thursday afternoon that Mark Martin was going to leave Roush Racing after a 19-year relationship with both Roush and Ford, at first it sounded pretty far-fetched.

    The combination of Roush, Martin and Ford has been synonymous with stock car racing for nearly two decades.

    Martin in a Chevy?

    Say it ain't so.

    But it was true. Martin had his press conference and announced he was heading to MB2 Motorsports and Chevy in 2007, and everyone walked away shaking their heads.

    For the past two years, Martin has been telling the world that he was retiring from Cup racing. At the same time, he also told everyone who would listen that he was loyal to his longtime friend Jack Roush and to Ford.

    Martin also said that he wasn't in it for the money.

    That was then, this is now.

    Friday's announcement was all about the money.

    A lot of it.

    When Martin decided he didn't want to spend 38 weekends a year racing a Cup car, his first choice was to defect to the Craftsman Truck Series and its one-day shows and 25-race schedule.

    That was to be the plan for next season, with Martin owning his own Ford truck team.

    Things somehow got a bit off-track and this past August rumors began to swirl around the NASCAR garage that Martin's deal with Roush and Ford was on the rocks and that Martin was looking to race Cup cars part-time in '07.

    Martin began to talk to other teams and soon found that his services were in high demand – so much so that that several teams, both competitive and not so much, were willing to fork over big dollars to get the veteran driver in the car, even if just for a part-time schedule.

    Billionaire team owner Bobby Ginn ponied up with what sources close to the team say is millions more than Martin currently makes.

    Martin got his cake and now he'll get to eat it.

    His defection from Roush's organization makes it three top drivers (Martin, Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch) in the past two years who have fled The Cat with the Hat's Concord, N.C., campus for greener pastures.

    That's a pretty strong indictment of the Roush organization.

    "I think in all cases, people left for what they thought was better for them," said points leader Burton, who left Roush in 2004 for Richard Childress Racing.

    The "better" Burton speaks of about in this instance could be more money. Word in the garage is that all three drivers left Roush for much greener (as in money green) pastures.

    So much for loyalty.

    One thing is clear: Martin still loves racing.

    "When you can compete like I have been able to the last couple of years at this level of competition, it's hard to step away from it," Martin said.

    Maybe that helps to understand Brett Favre's decision to stay with the Packers.

    Despite an air of civility maintained during Friday's press conference, there seemed to be an undercurrent of unhappiness with everything that had transpired. There still may be a lot under the surface of these moves that we've yet to see.

    Montoya had a remarkably good showing in his stock car debut here Friday, finishing third in the wreck- and darkness-shortened ARCA race. But the Colombian F1 refugee isn't the only open wheel racer at Talladega this weekend working to break into NASCAR's top ranks.

    Champ Car driver A.J. Allmendinger is back behind the wheel of the No. 24 Toyota Tundra for Bill Davis Racing in Saturday's inaugural Craftsman Truck Series race at Talladega, the John Deere 250.

    In his debut at New Hampshire last month, Allmendinger wrecked his truck in qualifying, started at the tail end of the field and finished a solid 13th.

    Fresh off his Champ Car win at Road America in Wisconsin, Allmendinger was ready to tackle the high banks of Talladega this weekend – until he got into the infield, that is.

    "When you walk in here, it's enormous," Allmendinger said. "When you get on [the track] by yourself you wonder what the big deal is. Then, when you're with a pack of 16 other trucks around you, you understand."

    His goal in Saturday's truck race is to continue learning and get more comfortable on the big tracks.

    Allmendinger does not have a deal to race in Champ Cars next season – yet.

    "It's a tough decision to make," Allmendinger said. "I love Champ Cars and I would certainly be in a position to win a championship there next year. But this is such a big deal over here, it's hard not to think seriously about it."

    There has been plenty of speculation that Allmendinger could join Brian Vickers at Team Red Bull next season. Last month in Loudon, Red Bull team manager Marty Gaunt gave high praise to Allmendinger but cautioned that no decision on a second driver had been made.

    Joke of the Day: F1 publications in Europe are saying that former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve had signed a deal with Roush Racing.

    Roush says Villeneuve's agents have been snooping around the Cup garage but so far there have been no takers.

    If he's thinking Roush, perhaps Monsieur Villeneuve should talk to Martin, Burton or Busch first.

    High fives go to the management of Talladega Superspeedway for delivering the goods. The repaving job at the 2.66-mile tri-oval has drawn strong praise from drivers and crew chiefs.

    Several drivers said Talladega now is the smoothest track they race on.

    Now if that same management team could find a way to have bottled water in the media center …

    September 23, 2006
    From the cheap seats
    By Bob Margolis

    DOVER, Del. – It didn't take long for the first episode of controversy to strike the Chase.

    Quite frankly, I expected it to come even before the first race began.

    Instead, it took a dominant win by Kevin Harvick at New Hampshire and an allegation of cheating aired on television to set the fires of controversy aflame.

    There were angry denials offered by the accused, Richard Childress Racing. Childress himself brushed it off by saying that he's seen it all before.

    Jeff Burton angrily accused the media of not doing its job by investigating first and reporting second. And Kevin Harvick, well, he just sat back and watched it all unfold with a smile on his face.

    Several million words in print and over the airwaves later and nothing much has changed.

    Were they cheating? And should we care?

    To answer the first question, NASCAR says no. In fact, NASCAR was adamant about it and denied there was any wrongdoing.

    One crew chief I talked to – who shall remain anonymous, but has a driver in the Chase – told me that the box they have to work in is so small nowadays, that they always are looking for ways to stretch it.

    "That's what I get paid to do," he said. "And NASCAR's inspectors are paid to find out."

    It's accepted knowledge that everyone in the NASCAR garage bends the rules in some way, shape or form. Several crew chiefs told me that what RCR was accused of doing (tampering with the rims of their wheels to adjust air pressure) isn't illegal and really isn't cheating – which makes one wonder how widespread the alleged modification is in the garage.

    Instead, it's been described as falling into the vague, nebulous area of the rules that NASCAR calls "unapproved."

    OK then, what does "unapproved" really mean?

    It all depends upon whom you talk to.

    When contacted, NASCAR officials say there isn't really a definitive explanation for it. It all depends upon the situation.

    Crew chiefs, on the other hand, believe the penalty for having an unapproved part or modification depends on the mood of the inspectors at the time they discover something they consider "unapproved."

    Then there is the "not in the spirit of the rules" tag that was used to describe the modified shocks discovered in the postrace inspection of last year's Dover race winner Jimmie Johnson and his teammate Kyle Busch.

    NASCAR officials didn't say that the shocks were illegal, but they termed the modifications were giving the Hendrick Motorsports teams a competitive advantage.

    In other words, be innovative, but hope that what you've come up with doesn't work.

    The alleged RCR situation, then, would have fallen under the "spirit of the rules" tag since there is no rule that prohibits what they are accused of doing.

    As in any sport, those who participate are always looking for an edge on the competition. That little bit extra can come in the form of chemical enhancement upon one's body or the manipulation of a valve stem or racing wheel.

    Sometimes to gain that edge, some may be faced with crossing the boundaries of what may be legal or ethical. At that point, it is up to them to make that decision.

    And for those of us who are sitting up here in the cheap seats, it's pretty hard to pass judgment on those who seek that edge.

    September 17, 2006
    Lights out
    By Jon Baum

    LOUDON, N.H. – The Chase opener at Loudon has brought some unexpected events in its first two seasons, but nothing could quite match what happened prerace here at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sunday.

    The power went out.

    Across the entire NHIS facility.

    Early reports were that a nearby motor vehicle accident caused the outage.

    Prerace ceremonies went on as planned, with the only evidence of a blackout being the national anthem sung by singer Denise Doucette into an essentially dead microphone, though it could be heard on a handheld scanner in the media center. It wasn't, however, played over the PA system, as the crowd just spent time doing the wave and bouncing beach balls around.

    It was wild.

    The TV crews kept rolling as the ceremonies continued, and the flyover happened as planned. Some in the stands realized they had missed the national anthem and decided to sing it themselves, and much of this capacity crowd joined the impromptu rendition.

    It all begged the question: Could a race go on without any power if need be?

    This one did. NASCAR says its key elements, like communications and timing and scoring, were running on generators, as was the TV broadcast equipment – meaning viewers at home wouldn't be greatly affected by the outage.

    The teams and pit crews, meanwhile, have generators and battery backups for their pit boxes, and a member of the No. 14 team told me that they could go the entire race on those power sources if necessary.

    They didn't have to.

    During the race's first caution, which came out during a third-lap crash, the power at New Hampshire International Speedway was restored and the lights were back on at the Sylvania 300.

    Incidentally, some speculated the entire event was a marketing ploy by race sponsor Sylvania to show off its sleek lantern and flashlight technology.

    September 17, 2006
    Trucks and such
    By Jon Baum

    LOUDON, N.H. – When the TV broadcast decides to "crank it up," viewers at home with good sound systems get at least a vague idea of how loud NASCAR cars and trucks really are.

    But those who have been to the races know the TV portrayal is nothing compared to the real deal.

    Standing near the end of pit road during Saturday's Craftsman Truck Series race here at New Hampshire International Speedway – the pit exit, incidentally, is one of the best places to be at any relatively short track, as the view (and sounds) of the cars/trucks coming off the front straight and into Turn 1 is wild – one can't escape the auditory assault NASCAR wages on its fans.

    The trucks actually, somewhat surprisingly, aren't quite as loud as their Cup counterparts, but the noise easily is more than enough to drown out any given rock band (well, except for The Who).

    What's more striking than the noise the trucks make when they drive by is the noise they make when they wreck – something else also only somewhat appreciable by watching on television.

    Over the roar of the engines could be heard a gasp from the crowd and onlookers on pit road as Boston Reid spun coming through Turn 1. His truck slammed into the wall between Turns 1 and 2, and even with the SAFER barrier – which muffles both impact and noise – a loud, resounding thud sounded across the track.

    The safety crew and tow truck got there very quickly, almost immediately after the caution was thrown.

    But not all of Saturday's cautions were brought out by wrecks. In fact, after Saturday's race, which featured a Craftsman Trucks track-record 12 cautions, there is no doubt what my least favorite NASCAR-related words are: "Caution for debris."

    (Replacing what Sterling Marlin once yelled at me when I asked him if he had time for a couple of questions. Actually, to this day, I'm not really sure exactly what he said in an ultra-thick and at that moment agitated Tennessee drawl, so it probably didn't qualify, anyway.)

    "I could not believe the cautions and the reason for some of the cautions, but that's racing," said Mike Skinner, who finished second to Johnny Benson in the race.

    The frequent yellows prevented some from settling in as much as they would have liked, curbing the momentum of drivers like Skinner and third-place finisher Kyle Busch, whose trucks were better on longer runs.

    There also were a whole slew of cautions in the Busch East race earlier in the day, which ended up being shortened due to time constraints (read: this race is lasting too long and we need to get these guys off the track so the trucks can get going).

    Might Saturday's yellow-fests cause Cup teams to think about adjusting their cars to better perform on shorter runs when they make their first pit stops?

    That might not be necessary, as Busch doesn't expect Sunday's Cup race to mirror the Saturday shows, partly because he believes Cup drivers are more likely to allow for some give and take, and also because drivers likely will give plenty of room to those in the Chase.

    Busch actually displayed some of that give and take with Skinner, who got himself too deep into a corner and would have wrecked himself and/or Busch had the younger driver, who has a reputation for being a bit reckless, not backed off.

    Skinner, in fact, thanked Busch after the race for not wrecking him.

    Skinner described Busch's decision to back off as being "a very veteran move." He admitted to being a Busch fan, saying that while the 21-year-old is aggressive and will tear up some equipment, he also will win a lot of races.

    "If I had a race car, I'd want him driving my race car," Skinner said.

    But it wasn't all give and take, as series veterans Ted Musgrave and Rick Crawford mixed it up on track, with Musgrave retaliating against Crawford after the former was bounced into the wall by the latter. (Reigning series champ Musgrave was parked for his actions.)

    But according to Skinner, the Craftsman Truck Series is "about entertainment." "We just appreciate Rick and Ted for bringing us some."

    It's all just part of racing the trucks, apparently, as hard-nosed, side-by-side racing is the norm, says Benson.

    "Nobody complains," he said.

    Teammates often, but not always, will cut each other some slack on the race track, but what about drivers from different teams who drive for the same manufacturer?

    Apparently, having the same badge on the front of the car doesn't mean all that much.

    "It's more person than manufacturer. If I didn't like Toyota, I would have wrecked [Skinner]," said Busch, referring to the non-incident in which he backed off to avoid getting into Skinner. "I like Mike, so I let him live."

    As for the other side of the coin? Busch, a Chevy driver, points to his relationship with Ron Hornaday Jr., driver of the No. 33 Chevy truck.

    "Him and I don't get along so well on the race track," Busch said, leading Skinner to shush the younger driver in an apparent effort to (jokingly) stop Busch from stirring up some controversy.

    Skinner also at one point took over the postrace press conference and himself asked Busch a question about tires.

    And nobody shushed Skinner.

    Despite the victory, Benson still trails first-place Todd Bodine by 124 points with seven races remaining. Benson, who battled Bodine for several laps in mostly clean, side-by-side fashion on Saturday, admits that catching Bodine will be tough if Bodine keeps running as well as he has all season.

    But Benson, who has won four of the last nine races, isn't giving up.

    "We're going down swinging," he said.

    There are far more fans jammed in the pits during a Cup race than can be seen for the truck show, but there are still plenty enough that many only narrowly escape being run over by pit crews wheeling their tool boxes back to the garage. It never ceases to amaze that fans, crew members, officials and media members in the pits and garage aren't hurt by equipment or cars more often.

    Speaking of questionable garage and pit behavior, people still can be seen smoking cigarettes on pit road during the race. Winston's influence lives on, apparently …

    There was a somewhat acceptable but not great crowd at Loudon on a pleasant Saturday afternoon for the truck race. But the Cup races here always sell out, with 101,000 fans filling this facility.

    "Lots of great fans in the Northeast," Benson said.

    Local fans seem to love this track – or at least they attend by default – but many still believe the "Magic Mile" certainly doesn't deserve a Chase date and possibly shouldn't even have two Cup races.

    No, it's not the most dynamic track on the circuit, but the racing has improved greatly in the past couple of years since the surface was widened and repaved. And again, fans do flock to it.

    Critics also point out that Loudon isn't in a major market, though the track isn't all that much further from Boston than Chicagoland is from Chicago, than California Speedway is from Los Angeles, and than Talladega is from Birmingham. It also is roughly the same distance from Boston that Michigan International Speedway is from Detroit.

    Benson even implied that he identifies with these fans and this track, alluding to the similarity of him being from the Midwest (Michigan) and fans at Loudon being from "nearby" in the Northeast.

    Is it just that traditionalists who probably aren't huge fans of the Chase, anyway, don't like the idea of important races being played out in front of relatively non-traditional fan bases, or is it that they just don't like the racing they see at this track?

    Possibly a little of both.

    Maybe Loudon deserves a Chase race, maybe it doesn't.

    But the Chase certainly doesn't need another 1½-miler, nor does it need a track that can't sell all of its seats – and neither of those limitations apply to NHIS.

    September 16, 2006
    The truck starts here
    By Bob Margolis

    Upon first meeting him, A.J. Allmendinger doesn't come across as the serious type. But when behind the wheel of a race car, he is all business.

    Allmendinger also is a shrewd player of the motorsports game who knows that race car drivers nowadays have to be thinking about competing in NASCAR.

    Allmendinger already has become a sensation in Champ Cars, having first been pretty much abandoned early in the 2006 season by RuSport, the team that brought him into the series. He then was picked up by Forsythe Racing and promptly won three consecutive races, starting with his first career Champ Car victory.

    With just one race left in the season, Allmendinger sits second in Champ Car points. One can only imagine how different things would be if he had switched teams earlier in the year.

    Of course, all that is happening in front of crowds of maybe 30,000 or 40,000 on race day with maybe another 150,000 or so households watching on television.

    Allmendinger made the wise choice and sought out the greener pastures of NASCAR, where the competition is much stronger and the financial payout astronomically higher. And after watching Champ Car teammate (and former series champion) Paul Tracy switch gears and run a few races in NASCAR, Allmendinger knew he was up to the task.

    Several persistent phone calls later to his connections at Red Bull (he's one of more than a dozen drivers worldwide endorsed by the popular energy drink) and the Colorado native found himself testing a Toyota Tundra for Bill Davis Racing at Richmond International Raceway.

    That led to his competition debut in the truck here at New Hampshire International Speedway this weekend.

    A qualifying wreck on race day, which forced his team to switch to a backup truck for the race, did nothing more than bruise his ego and kick him several rungs up the learning ladder. BDR teammate Mike Skinner came by afterward to tell him not to sweat it, that those things are going to happen. NASCAR director of competition Robin Pemberton also stopped by and offered words of encouragement.

    Allmendinger then went out and finished 13th in Saturday's race – quite a statement in itself considering he started from the rear of the field and kept himself out of trouble in a race that featured a record number of cautions (12).

    After the race, Allmendinger was brimming with compliments for the entire Bill Davis Racing crew.

    At one point, Allmendinger was a lap down to the race leaders. He admitted that the biggest part of his first NASCAR experience was learning to never give up.

    "In a Champ Car, during a race, your car is either good or it's not," Allmendinger said. "And you're kind of stuck with it. In the truck, even when it was bad for the previous 10 laps, you can still come in and make changes and it's a whole different feel."

    Still committed to racing a full season next year with Forsythe Racing, the Champ Car schedule has enough open weekends to potentially allow Allmendinger to run a number of NASCAR races, either in a truck or in the Busch Series.

    Allmendinger's first outing was watched very carefully by Team Red Bull Toyota officials Marty Gaunt and Elton Sawyer. The team makes its Cup debut next season with Brian Vickers as one of its drivers.

    Already there is wild speculation that Allmendinger could join Vickers at Red Bull next season.

    That's highly unlikely – at least for next year. But once he has a dozen or so NASCAR races under his belt, how about in 2008? Who knows …

    September 15, 2006
    Searching for excitement
    By Bob Margolis

    LOUDON, N.H. – Kevin Harvick isn't sure what momentum is, but he knows that his team has got it.

    "Right now things are just going really well and when you have momentum on your side, it is something you can't buy," said Harvick, who won the pole for Sunday's Chase opener here at New Hampshire. "You can't necessarily figure out how you got it, where you got it. It is just one of those things."

    Harvick, hot off his double-up win last weekend at Richmond (Busch and Cup), admitted he really doesn't care much about qualifying and that maybe he should. Nevertheless, he said, he'll take the pole and the advantages it offers, like getting the first stall on pit road.

    Starting alongside the Richard Childress Racing driver is Jeff Gordon, who still hasn't won a pole this year.

    "It was a bit of a letdown to not get the pole because I haven't gotten a pole this year, but in all honesty, anywhere up front is good," Gordon said. "That front row is a great starting place. It is a huge improvement for us from the last time we were here.

    Gordon's last pole was at Infineon Raceway in June '05.

    Kasey Kahne qualifying back in 33rd perhaps was Friday's only surprise.

    "We thought we needed to loosen up the car a little bit and we were too loose," Kahne said. "I couldn’t go any faster. We’ll take a bad starting spot on Sunday and see if we can make it better by the end."

    Not a very promising start for a team that had to race its way into the Chase.

    Did someone say the Chase has started?

    Here we are in New Hampshire and everything's pretty much like every other race weekend.

    Well, there is one exception.

    The drivers and teams not in the Chase don't want to talk about it.

    In fact, they just don't want to talk about anything.

    Meanwhile, for the special group of 10, it's become all Chase, all the time. If this is how it's going to be for the next 10 weeks, yikes!

    I asked Denny Hamlin what was more difficult, answering all the questions about the pressures of the Chase or actually getting behind the wheel and racing.

    Ever the diplomat, Hamlin replied that he'd rather be answering questions about being in the Chase than be 20th and not involved.

    But to be honest, some of the drivers were being asked some pretty silly questions.

    Roush teammates Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth may have had the same setup for qualifying, as they start side-by-side on Sunday – in the 13th row. Ouch.

    Just to give you an idea of the vibe here in Loudon, the big news was that Kenseth had hit TV host Kelly Ripa with 17 pies, putting Kenseth into the Guinness Book of World Records.

    Keeping with the pie theme, Kevin Harvick, who had been the victim of a pie to the face from Denny Hamlin – also during the "Live with Regis & Kelly" show – got a bit of payback by throwing a pie full of whipped cream and his sponsor's product, Reese's pieces, into Hamlin's face during the post-qualifying ceremonies.

    Like I said, it's been pretty laid back for the start of the Chase.

    Champ Car standout A.J. Allmendinger is attempting to make his first NASCAR start in the Craftsman Truck Series.

    The 25-year-old Allmendinger, whose talents in an open wheel car are among the best in that genre, found adapting to the heavier trucks to be an enjoyable task.

    "We just kept working on the truck to make it better with each practice session," he said. "After a while, I could move my lines around and drive the truck and not let it drive me."

    However, he did notice a huge difference between his regular ride and his Toyota Tundra.

    "I just wish they went into the turns like my Champ Car," Allmendinger said. "My Champ Car really plants itself to the track going into the corners. The truck likes to roll around a whole lot when you go into the corner."

    Allmendinger says he's ready for the rough-and-tough rubbin' action of the truck, too.

    "Yeah, I've been warned about getting hit a lot," Allmendinger said. "That's OK, as long as they don't spin me around."

    Allmendinger was the eighth fastest of 37 trucks in practice and the fastest rookie on the track Friday.

    Earlier in the day, three-time Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague was asked about Allmendinger joining the series.

    Sprague's reply: "I have no idea who he is. I guess it's just another guy named A.J."

    Sprague added," And he's another guy with a last name we can make fun of."

    A few quick observations:

  • With his mustache and slicked-back hair, Sprague looks eerily like the character "D-Day" from the movie "Animal House."
  • This is the first time since Dover in June that the Craftsman Truck series has run a companion event with the Cup series. NASCAR has been very successful at reinforcing the CTS identity by being able to stage stand-alone truck events successfully.
  • There really are liquor stores at the rest areas on the highways here in New Hampshire.
  • Nearly every building, fence and wall on the road leading to NHIS was plastered with a Coors beer poster featuring driver David Stremme. I'm wondering, are they trying to get rid of them?

  • September 5, 2006
    Hot rods
    By Bob Margolis

    INDIANAPOLIS – I love drag racing.

    Although I enjoy all different forms of motorsport, I've always had a special place in my heart for watching two cars race side-by-side down the quarter-mile.

    I can still remember attending my first drag race as a young child, and the sounds, sights and smells of that first race left a deep impression.

    Sometimes I find it hard to explain my love of drag racing, although anyone who has attended a professional drag race will find it quite easy to understand the attraction.

    It's loud, it's fast, it shakes the ground, and it may be the most emotion-driven of all motorsports.

    Monday's final rounds of eliminations in the NHRA's biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals here in Indianapolis, were jam-packed with emotion.

    There were huge upsets from the start, as favorite after favorite was knocked out either because they left the starting line too early (called a red light start) or because they just were outrun by an underdog.

    After four days of qualifying races, for a team to just get into the final 16-car (or bike) field was a task in itself. So to lose in the first round of eliminations is heartbreaking.

    When the smoke settled, there were long faces on some of the sport's biggest names and their crew members, including Top Fuel points leader Doug Kalitta, defending Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi and 13-time Funny Car champion John Force. All lost their first-round matchups.

    There also was plenty of drama, as young Eric Medlen's Funny Car exploded an engine, causing his dragster to catch fire. He was unhurt, but he lost his race and his car suffered damage.

    Then there was veteran Pro Stock racer Ron Krisher's accident. It was very scary.

    As Krisher approached the finish line at nearly 200 mph, his car swerved and then barrel-rolled twice before hitting one of the retaining walls on the race track. The car then caught fire.

    Krisher was unconscious when safety workers got to him and put out the fire. He soon regained consciousness and emerged from his twisted and charred Chevrolet Cobalt under his own power – a testament to the NHRA safety rules.

    The NHRA has a specialized group of safety professionals that travel the circuit called the Safety Safari. It is their job to make sure that track surface is ready for racing and that there are medical and mechanical professionals prepared to rescue a driver in need.

    It still makes me crazy every time I think about NASCAR being the only professional racing organization that does not have its own Safety Safari.

    The grandstands were packed all day long Monday with race fans from across America and around the world. All of them came to experience what can be categorized as the world's biggest and most prestigious drag race.

    A five-day event like this easily draws a crowd of more than 150,000 people.

    Each and every fan who buys a ticket gets access to the pits – and not just from a special viewing area. Fans get to stand right next to the cars and crew members as they work in the pit area.

    In addition to the on-track activities, there were also several special events held during the five-day event, with many focusing on drag racing's heritage.

    I truly believe that drag racing does more to preserve its heritage and honor its past stars than any other form of racing. At many of its national events, cars from the past – most of them still able to race down the quarter-mile – are brought out for the fans to see, and in many cases hear.

    Older dragsters from the 1960s, when speeds over 200 mph were considered impossible (Monday race winner Tony Schumacher recorded a speed of over 337 mph during one run), are brought to the track and their nitromethane-powered engines are started up so that fans can better understand where the sport has come from and how far it has traveled.

    NASCAR on occasion may bring one or two older cars out for display purposes, but drag racing actually has an organized group calling themselves "The Goodguys" that tours across the country and competitively races these 40-year old cars, much to the delight of fans both young and old.

    That's another reason why I love drag racing.

    If your only exposure to drag racing is watching it on television, then you're not getting it.

    It's difference between watching a cooking show on TV and actually cooking and eating the food yourself.

    Once you've attended and experienced a professional drag race, I can guarantee you without any doubt that you will be so blown away by what you see, you'll be telling your friends and most likely finding yourself watching it on television thereafter.

    The big on-track winners Monday were Schumacher (Top Fuel), who won his fifth U.S. Nationals title; Robert Hight (Funny Car), who won his first; Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), who won his fourth; and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Bike), who won his first.

    Everyone else simply got to experience the nitromethane-induced tears and ground-shaking 330 mph racing.

    It simply was awesome.

    September 3, 2006
    Looking for fans
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    FONTANA, Calif. – I have to admit, I want California Speedway to succeed.

    NASCAR needs a strong presence in the Southern California market, and while some of the aesthetics that surround the speedway leave a lot to be desired – numerous industrial smoke stacks, a waste disposal compound and decrepit railroad tracks – local and San Bernardino County officials are serious about turning the place into the garden spot of stock car racing.

    After interviewing track president Gillian Zucker earlier in the week, I decided to wander around her pride and joy: the new $10 million Fan Zone.

    For the most part, I like the Fan Zone. It's not only expansive – roughly three football fields long, hugging behind the front stretch grandstands – it also has a cross-section of attractions that should hold the attention of most fans.

    There are musical acts, strolling mariachis, the obligatory driver souvenir stands, booths touting giveaways, and the multimillion dollar centerpiece, Wolfgang Puck's Apex restaurant, offering chi-chi but reasonably-priced fare.

    At times, though, I wonder if Zucker may have tried to do too much – the changes are somewhat of a shock to the system – but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that the "more is better" approach will indeed woo fans of all types from throughout Southern California, as well as neighboring Arizona, Nevada and beyond.

    But as much as I've gone on the record about how I hope Zucker's vision for the speedway will be a big hit, it lacked one major thing Friday and Saturday, the key to its future success: fans.

    Granted, I went through the Fan Zone Friday evening when most fans had already departed rather than watch the NASCAR Grand National Auto Zone West Series race, which wound up being a wreck-fest. But that's a story for another day.

    I returned to the track and the new fan experience Saturday morning and, once again, I noticed the relative absence of people. From the time I drove into the parking lot – which was only about 15 percent full in late morning – to finding a parking spot that left me only steps from entering the Fan Zone, I kept looking for more people than were out there.

    Don't get me wrong, the Fan Zone was not a ghost town by any stretch, but at a track that boasts a capacity of 92,000 fans that grows to 120,000 to 125,000 when including suites and infield, there was a woeful dearth of eager, ready-to-spend, cash-toting consumers.

    Saturday's temperatures – which hovered around 100 degrees – may have kept some fans from venturing into the zone. But there are plenty of water and shade oases where fans can quench their thirst and find respite from the beating rays of the sun.

    When the Cup Series had its two practice sessions at the height of the heat and midday sun Saturday afternoon, the number of fans in the stands was woeful, as well. Again, I'll give the track the benefit of the doubt that those same stands will be packed when the Cup race kicks off at 5:05 p.m. PT Sunday.

    But there's another bad sign that doesn't exactly bode well for Sunday. I kept going back and forth on where I wanted to stay this weekend. I typically stay in Fullerton, which is about 45 minutes away in good traffic, even longer on race day. But this trip, I decided to stay somewhere closer.

    Less than a week before race day, I thought I'd have a snowball's chance in the desert to find a close-by hotel. Well, how does less than four miles from the track sound?

    It wasn't a fluke, either. There are plenty of vacant hotel rooms around the track, ranging from Riverside all the way to West Covina and beyond. Parking lots are half-full at night. Restaurants where you typically would wait 45 to 90 minutes for a table seat you within 10 minutes of walking in the door.

    I've been coming to California Speedway for six or seven years and have never seen the surrounding area so barren. One good thing, though: At least the Burger King from the commercials made it. He actually caused more of a stir in the media center than Governor Arnold likely will Sunday.

    Not a good sign.

    I'll give Zucker – who readily admits Sunday's race will not be a sellout – the benefit of the doubt that the speedway will indeed have, as she put it, an "excellent turnout."

    If not, all her hard work may have gone for naught. And that would truly be a shame.

    September 2, 2006
    It's a scorcher
    By Jon Baum

    FONTANA, Calif. – Man, it's hot.

    It's like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot.

    With apologies to Neil Simon (but never to Paul Simon after what he did to Art Garfunkel – you know, have a successful career), "Biloxi Blues" might be based in Mississippi, but Matthew Broderick's utterings also could have applied to late summer in Fontana.

    Sure, it's a "dry heat," so humidity isn't an issue, but it's still bloody hot. Oppressively so.

    Even the drivers know this, as Brian Vickers noticed during qualifying fans crowding as close to the top of the grandstand as possible so that they might steal a little bit of shaded relief from the blazing California sun.

    Anyone thinking Darlington (which only hit 87 degrees Saturday) should get this date back and that Fontana's second race should be moved to later in the year can use this weekend as evidence.

    It was so hot Saturday that a man could be seen spraying water on his beaming, appreciative son from some sort of pump contraption attached to the dad's hip.

    It especially could be felt in the garage with the cars revved up, pulling in and out. On my way through I noticed the 00 car (owned by Michael Waltrip, driven by Bill Elliott) had a Burger King paint scheme. At least it was just a paint scheme, and not the creepy king from those commercials himself. Savor the small victories.

    The heat – and unsettling sponsorships – didn't stop fans from enjoying the activities and concessions around California Speedway here on Saturday, but it did help determine what became the more popular attractions.

    Sure, racing simulators and scantily-clad women – appearing in some official sponsor capacity or otherwise – drew the biggest crowds, as is the case at pretty much every track. And one sponsor's beer taste challenge, not surprisingly, also was pretty popular (though it was hard to explain the long line of people waiting, in the heat, for a hair styling from some Garnier reps. It was also hard to explain the giant picture of Garnier driver Vickers, himself stylin', overlooking the entire event. Let's ask Mr. Vickers about that in his next track preview).

    Totally groovy animals.
    The sea lions kept cool. (Y! Sports)
    But all that aside, it was all about beating the heat. Dozens of fans (of the human variety) crowded around a handful of fans (of the mechanical variety) which were spritzing cool water over passersby. The King Taco stand also had a built-in water mister for those who got close enough (read: within food ordering distance).

    Then there was a local newspaper which was handing out free copies of that day's edition. They also were giving away "free squirts" from a water bottle. Despite providing some good NASCAR reading, the latter offering was a bit more appealing.

    One NASCAR-related promotion combined several elements: a (somewhat) scantily-clad young woman trying to get fans to sign up for a NASCAR-related program. The reward? A bottle of water.

    Fitting in nicely with the whole heat theme was a beach-like attraction, a new exhibit outside the grandstand featuring a sand castle artist doing his thing in a glorified sandbox. Right across the way was a pool, but the water was off-limits to fans (human and mechanical). No, this pool was keeping the sea lions cool.


    Then there was good ol' Schwan's. Three words: Free. Ice. Cream.

    It wasn't just that they were giving away mini ice cream sandwiches, but they also were holding an ice cream sandwich-eating contest. The clubhouse leader as of roughly 1 p.m. PT? Sixteen sandwiches in just five minutes (the young kid walking away with ice cream smeared all over his face, sadly, fell short).

    The winner was to receive a Ken Schrader banner. And likely an inevitable brain freeze and digestive issues.

    Eventually the 102-degree heat became too much, and so began the trek – which featured more fans (mechanical) spraying water on both fans (human) and some of those sponsor-sponsored scantily-clad women giving away beer – back to the welcome air-conditioned confines of the media center.

    But even there it wasn't safe. Sure, we were able to cool down, but there was no sense of normalcy – not when he walked in.

    He was here after all. The creepy king from the Burger King commercials. His presence made me, in a moment of exaggerated overreacting, leap backward in my chair. He was making the rounds.

    When asked, his minions told me he shouldn't be referred to as "the Burger King king" or some other variant (I didn't specifically ask about the use of the word "creepy"), but rather simply as "The King."

    (Maybe it was Richard Petty behind that mask?)

    They were handing out masks. Now you too can be a creepy king.

    His majesty. (Y! Sports)
    Actually, The (creepy) King's appearance wasn't only due to the car sponsorship, as Burger King, described in a track press release as "the second largest fast food hamburger company in the world," has signed on as a sponsorship partner with the track itself for this race weekend. They are promoting a "King of the Infield" program, where fans can be randomly selected by The (creepy) King to spend race day in the Burger King VIP terrace. Presumably with The (creepy) King himself.

    Oh the horror.

    On his way out of the media center, The (creepy) King actually pointed to his masked eyes and then me as if to say, "I'll be watching you."

    I may not be able to sleep tonight.

    Spending the day in Biloxi (Saturday's high was around 90, with somewhat tolerable humidity) suddenly didn't seem like such a bad idea.

    Though The (creepy) King proved Saturday that he can indeed take that kind of hot.

    September 2, 2006
    Robby's world
    By Bob Margolis

    FONTANA, Calif. – Driver/team owner Robby Gordon finally talked to the media Friday at California Speedway about his now dead-in-the-water deal to buy Robert Yates Racing.

    Gordon didn't hide the fact that there had been an ongoing attempt by his organization to purchase half of Robert Yates Racing, but he also described it as a very difficult two months of negotiations.

    It now appears that the on, then off, then on again deal now is officially off for good.

    Gordon didn't really go into great detail on why the deal fell through, which unfortunately left more questions unanswered than answered. He would only say that he's disappointed that it didn't happen.

    "The morning we were supposed to do the deal, I got a call from my lawyer who said that the deal was off," said Gordon, who admitted that although he was disappointed with how it all turned out, he and his team would now move forward.

    Gordon then proceeded to give the small group of writers and reporters present a purposely-vague indication that his team would be switching to Ford power next season. Gordon said he had enjoyed his relationship with Chevrolet, but he added "If you run a Chevrolet you're running a good car, but you're not going to be one of the top three teams [for that manufacturer]."

    That's a reference to the Hendrick, Childress and Gibbs teams, which all run Chevys.

    Gordon indicated that any decision to switch manufacturers would be based on who would offer the best technical support. He suggested that Ford was willing to step up to the plate and deliver the kind of help that Gordon's struggling single-car team would need to move up to the next level.

    Gordon also praised the kind of engine building partnership that Jack Roush and Robert Yates have established and referred to it as "the right kind of partnership to have."

    So maybe Gordon isn't buying Robert Yates Racing, but it sure sounds like he'll be buying Roush/Yates engines. Which also makes it sound like he'll be driving a Fusion next season as well.

    Gordon also unveiled his plans to run the Dakar Rally next January, driving a specially built Hummer which he said was undergoing testing at GM's Mesa, Ariz., test center this weekend.

    He also said he has a solid deal to run the 2007 Indy 500, but that there still were some minor issues to be resolved.

    Finally, Gordon called me out during his press briefing when I happened to mention his kicking the Ford logo on his race car nearly 10 years ago during an CART open wheel race he was leading until his engine gave out.

    "I've seen the video and I actually kicked the Valvoline logo and not the Ford logo," Gordon said. "Anyway, I knew at the time that I was leaving open wheel and that the Felix Sabates deal [in NASCAR] was going to be the best for me."

    OK, Robby. I'll find the video and we'll see what really transpired.

    September 1, 2006
    Drifting away
    By Bob Margolis

    IRWINDALE, Calif. – I sometimes wonder how life would be if we didn't have those strange, surreal moments thrown into it.

    A lot more boring, I would guess.

    On Thursday night, I experienced one of those surreal moments at Irwindale Speedway, of all places.

    When I first heard that driver Kasey Kahne – in an event set up to benefit his charitable foundation – and several of his fellow NASCAR drivers (Greg Biffle, Robby Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Casey Mears among them) would be involved in a drifting exhibition with professional drift racers, I thought it might have been a joke.

    Drifting and NASCAR?

    That's like putting on an X Games exhibition before a crowd expecting to see a bass fishing tournament.

    Mixing oil with water doesn't even come close.

    Nevertheless, I had to check out this bizarre recipe for entertainment.

    Irwindale Speedway, located east of Los Angeles, about halfway between downtown and California Speedway in Fontana, is a beautiful, state-of-the-art short track that makes you wish that more like it existed across the country. Perhaps if there were more, short track racing in America would be a lot healthier than its current state.

    Drifting is a big sport with the 16 to 30-year-old crowd, especially on the West Coast. The gist of drifting is the ability to drive down the road, or in this case, a race track, sideways. But instead of compensating for the slide, you overcompensate and slide the other way.

    It's loud, and if you love the smell of burning tire smoke, then this is the place to be.

    Drifting traces its origins to Japan about a decade ago and is the latest evolution in the growing sports compact segment of American auto racing.

    It looks a bit silly at first, especially the attempts made by the NASCAR drivers. But when the actual drifting professionals take the wheel, you realize that they are pretty good and have an awful lot of car control.

    There was a young man who enthusiastically filled the role as the public address announcer and kept the packed house (which I imagine showed up for the NASCAR guys) well-informed as to what was going on during the event.

    But to be honest, there were times when he would say something with such verve that it drew a huge crowd reaction and I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what just happened.

    I did finally figure out that when two drifters racing in tandem cross paths during a run, it was something really big (although I just kept waiting for them to hit one another).

    About halfway through the night it finally struck me as to why this sport has become so popular.

    It allows the crowd to experience the movie "The Fast and the Furious" – with its incredible car chases and fast action – in real life.

    It also is a lot like watching a video game like "Vice City" with Japanese sports compacts fishtailing their way down city streets and narrow alleys.

    All in all, it was a pretty entertaining evening, but I couldn't help thinking that I would much rather have been watching some late model racing action on the speedway's oval track instead.

    I don't know, the whole experience put stuff like tractor pulls and lawn mower racing in a whole new light for me.

    August 25, 2006
    Up north
    By Bob Margolis

    MONTREAL – While the rest of my peers in the NASCAR media pool are in the hills of Tennessee this weekend, I've traveled in the other direction – to Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

    Why am I in Montreal?

    Even though I attend nearly 30 NASCAR events every season, I try to fit other racing series into my busy schedule. This weekend, it’s the Champ Car World Series that's racing in Montreal, on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which also hosts Formula One each season.

    After racing there the past four years, however, this weekend marks the final race in Montreal for the U.S.-based Champ Car open wheel series.

    Next summer, NASCAR's Busch Series will be racing here instead. It hasn't yet been made official, but the weekend of July 20-22, which just happens to be the open Cup weekend on the recently announced 2007 schedule, will be the date for the inaugural Busch race in Montreal.

    That's another reason why I'm here, to gauge reaction among the local race fans to NASCAR coming to their town. NASCAR likes to tout that they have a huge fan base north of the border. I'm going to do my best to find out if that's true.

    Flying into Montreal, you immediately notice that it is a large, sprawling metropolis located on an island between two rivers, the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa.

    Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
    Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. (Getty)
    The downtown airport, named for the former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, is a large and modern facility that has a large customs processing area. They work you through customs very quickly. Much quicker than when I visit Mexico for the Busch race there.

    Unfortunately, after I arrived in Montreal I discovered that after many, many years of handling my baggage without a hitch, US Airways decided they would completely destroy it and damage much of its contents in the process.

    Welcome to Canada, monsieur!

    Driving into downtown Montreal is pretty easy. There is a very good highway system. You'll need to brush up on your French, though. All the highway signs are in French, which is the co-official language of this bilingual country.

    Here in Quebec, French is the language.

    I was warned that the drivers in the city are pretty, well, let's just say independent-minded. Driving around here is a lot like driving with a street full of New York City cab drivers – or a track full of NASCAR drivers. Everyone seems to be going for the same piece of real estate at the same time. And everyone is impatient. As soon as your traffic light changes to green, someone in the queue behind you already is hammering their horn.

    The city is an interesting mix of old European styling and ultra-modern high-rises. It reminds me a lot of Chicago.

    I'm looking forward to my first day at the track, which is located on an island – Ile Notre-Dame, which is a man-made island in the St. Lawrence River. It was built from the earth displaced during the building of the city's subway system and other sources.

    The island was part of Expo '67, which was a huge World's Fair (the most successful ever staged).

    It's normally a quiet park, except twice a year when there are auto races staged there.

    In order to get there, you can drive – which is highly discouraged since the facility has limited space for vehicles – or you can take the transportation of choice, the Metro (Montreal's subway system).

    Friday morning I'll get to experience it alongside the regular commuter crowd. Can't wait!

    Jusqua ma prochaine entree …

    August 17, 2006
    Shop talk
    By Bob Margolis

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With this being my last weekend away from a race track until Thanksgiving, I decided it would be a perfect time to take my family for a short vacation.

    It had to be somewhere close to home in Pennsylvania, allowing me to spend some quality time with my two youngest daughters while their older sister stayed at home and prepared to head back to college next week.

    There were several easily reachable destinations, but for various reasons, we chose the Charlotte area.

    Of course, now you're thinking "You're around stock car racing every weekend; couldn't you find a different place to spend your free time?"

    I suppose so, but with family and friends living in the Charlotte area, it was a good choice – and it also provided the chance to make a quick business visit to the NASCAR R&D center in Concord.

    It also was an opportunity to take my family for a behind-the-scenes visit to Hendrick Motorsports.

    Our tour guide was Jesse Essex, who is Hendrick's manager of media relations, but most people in the racing business see him as the official spokesperson for the organization.

    Essex was able to take us on our own guided tour of places where the public doesn't get to go and allowed my daughters and myself to see the hundreds of people who work behind the scenes to put the 5, 48 and 24 cars in contention for the Chase.

    It also allowed me to interact with several of the skilled craftsmen who build hundreds of engines every year.

    Then there were the chassis, fabrication and paint shops.

    Everyone I talked to in each of those areas did their job with a sense of pride and a real feeling that they were directly responsible for the success Gordon, Busch and Johnson enjoyed.

    Now I understand why a driver always takes time to thank the people working back at the shop. It's clear how important a role they play in a team's on-track success.

    Nearly every part on each race car is built in these facilities. You can't just order these parts from some warehouse.

    Here there are huge milling machines that make the internal engine parts.

    Across the parking lot, the chassis facility is responsible for designing and building those trick suspension pieces that have been a big part of Johnson and Busch's success this season, and an equally large part of why Gordon has struggled.

    Throughout the race shops also are constant visual reminders of the family and friends lost in the October 2004 plane crash outside of Martinsville – as if the memories of their shortened lives would ever be forgotten by this group.

    With the individual drivers receiving so many accolades, it becomes easy to forget that NASCAR racing is a team sport – that is until one gets the chance to visit the members of the team who don't come to the track every weekend. Their numbers far outweigh the comparatively small crew seen on race weekend.

    When NASCAR's Hall of Fame opens in uptown Charlotte in a few years, this and other race shops will become more of a destination for race fans around the world.

    It's a pretty remarkable campus, the Hendrick Motorsports facility. There are more just like it all around the area. Certainly a must-see for any racing fan.

    August 14, 2006
    Big moves in different directions
    By Bob Margolis

    In all sports, there is so much written and said about momentum.

    When it's good, it's like hopping on board a freight train driven by an almost magical force that propels an individual or team toward a goal, a championship, or just taking control of the current situation.

    But when it's bad, it's a nightmarish quagmire of constant self-doubt over every thought, every move and every decision made.

    Kevin Harvick is on the freight train right now.

    Fueling that freight train is a "this is our race to lose" kind of self-confidence that takes a good race car driver and his team to the next level and turns them both into champions.

    A good deal of credit for Harvick's ride goes to team owner Richard Childress, whose critical decision earlier this year to "do whatever it takes" to return his organization to prominence gave his troops the necessary tools to win races and championships.

    "We think about being in the Chase every week," Harvick said. "That's a topic of conversation before we even get in the race car, before we even get to the track."

    Harvick's gutsy win Sunday at Watkins Glen was long overdue. He knew that the timing was right, and if he was going to go head-to-head with the best road racer in NASCAR – his best friend, Tony Stewart – he had no choice but to emerge the victor.

    Otherwise, his freight train of momentum would be derailed.

    Hooray, steering wheel!
    Harvick celebrates. (Getty)
    Harvick's first career road course win showed the rest of the Nextel Cup garage that his Busch Series dominance is for real and that the same talented group of people who put him 443 points ahead of a very capable Carl Edwards in the Busch standings are about to also do wonders for Harvick in his Cup car.

    Then there is Kasey Kahne.

    Just six weeks ago, the young driver and his crew chief Kenny Francis were being hailed as favorites for the title. The accolades followed a dominating performance at Michigan that resulted in Kahne's fourth victory this season.

    Sure, they stunk up the joint at Talladega and Darlington, but they rebounded with a win in the Coca-Cola 600, two seventh-place finishes (Dover and Pocono) and the Michigan win.

    Then, for some unknown reason, Lady Luck decided to turn her back on Kahne and Co.

    A string of three races with finishes no better than 23rd (Chicagoland) was followed by a top-10 at Loudon. But three more disastrous outings, including late race wrecks at Indy and the Glen, have the No. 9 Dodge in 11th place – on the outside of the top 10 looking in – with only five races left before the Chase begins.

    "We've been battling," Kahne said. "We've been trying hard, but we haven't had the best of breaks in probably the last two months. We still have plenty of time to get in it."

    It's coming down to fourth and goal with just a few seconds left for these two teams.

    With momentum on his side, Kevin Harvick is about to run a quarterback sneak into the end zone.

    With the wrong kind of momentum, Kasey Kahne is about to fumble the ball on the one-yard line.

    August 12, 2006
    Grand old time
    By Bob Margolis

    WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – The headline following Friday night's Grand Am Series race read, "Diaz and Pruett Claim Fourth Win of the Season," but the real story wasn't necessarily who drove into victory lane at the end of the race.

    It was the politics behind the scenes.

    The Crown Royal 200 at the Glen was another highly competitive and hard-fought Grand Am race that unfortunately not nearly enough people watched live from the grandstands – and even more probably missed viewing because it was broadcast on a tape-delayed basis.

    Nevertheless, there was plenty of close racing action to keep any race fan entertained for the race's two-hour length.

    Scott Pruett held off defending series co-champion Max Angelelli for the win after the Krohn Racing team of points leader Jorg Bergmeister and 17-year-old rookie Colin Braun, who won the last three events, found themselves on the losing end of two separate calls.

    Rumors floating around the Grand Am garage the past few months have the Krohn Racing team, which is owned by billionaire Texas oilman Tracy Krohn, leaving the NASCAR-run Grand Am series to field the Aston Martin program in the rival American Le Mans Series. There has even been talk of Krohn buying the entire Aston Martin brand, since Ford has it on the block – something Krohn could afford to do.

    The defection rumors began after Krohn made clear his dissatisfaction with the way Braun's exclusion from the Grand Am race in June was handled by officials.

    Braun was barred from racing due to the law that prevents minors from competing in sporting events with tobacco sponsorship. The Indy Racing League was racing that same weekend with Team Penske, whose sponsor is Marlboro cigarettes.

    Sporty indeed.
    Friday's sports car race. (Getty Images)
    A local judge allowed Braun to race, but he eventually withdrew prior to the start of the event, being replaced by Boris Said.

    Ironically, the Krohn Racing team won the June event.

    During Friday night's race, Braun got a bit overconfident early in the race. As the field entered Turn 1, the youngster made contact with two different cars, bringing out the caution flag.

    Braun was given a stop-and-go penalty plus two minutes on pit lane for avoidable contact, putting him in the rear of the field and forcing him to work his way up to the front.

    Later in the race, teammate Bergmeister was penalized for running out of line on a restart.

    Granted, drivers were told that they would be penalized for making the kind of move Bergmeister made, but a replay showed that several cars had hit their brakes, forcing the German driver to take evasive action.

    Team members are foul and say racing politics are behind the severity of both decisions. They claim that officials are making it difficult for the Krohn team to win the title for fear that they would be leaving.

    Privately, the Krohn team says they have been talking to Aston Martin but that they are not leaving the series.

    However, they have not relayed that sentiment directly to Grand Am officials, who are left assuming that their current points leader and possible series champions are leaving at season's end.

    As of Saturday morning, the Krohn team had filed an official protest with Grand Am officials disputing the severity of the two penalties.

    You can expect Grand Am officials will uphold their decisions.

    Racing politics. You gotta love 'em.

    Saturday's Busch race final-lap showdown between race winner Kurt Busch and Robby Gordon was a classic.

    Both drivers had strong cars. Gordon's was a bit stronger in the bus stop section at the end of the back straight, and as the two drivers came up on the turn on the final lap, Gordon drove up to the side of Busch's Dodge.

    It was a "two men go in, only one comes out" battle. They bounced off of each other three times before Busch emerged as the victor.

    Had it been two lesser drivers, it would have been a wreck.

    Gordon was asked how far he was planning on going during that final move. He answered, "All the way. Unfortunately, I didn't go far enough."

    Jamie McMurray, who had problems of his own with an overheating engine, had a catbird's seat for the action. He was hoping the two would take each other out so he could just slide right into victory lane.

    Not this time, Jamie.

    "My spotter told me they were wrecking in front of me," McMurray said. "There was so much dust, I couldn't see what was going on in front of me. I was hoping they were both gone.

    "Then the dust cleared and they were both going straight."

    After the race, Gordon complained that this was the third runner-up finish for the car.

    "We need to build a new car," Gordon said.

    Busch, on the other hand, said that young children shouldn't watch Gordon race, alluding to Gordon's aggressive style.

    "You expect more from an open wheel guy when you go into a corner next to him," Busch said. "He really drove me hard into the turns."

    OK, Kurt, but I'm still trying to figure out how that's supposed to affect young children.

    August 11, 2006
    Busy day
    By Bob Margolis

    WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Walking into the Cup garage here in upstate New York Friday morning, I expected things to be quiet.

    Oh, it was quite the contrary, as several interesting storylines emerged.

    Among them was team owner Ray Evernham replying "Danica Patrick" after being asked who would be driving the No. 19 Dodge now that Jeremy Mayfield has been given the boot.

    Mayfield started the whole saga back at the Chicagoland race back in July. His season, up to that point, had been one of the worst of his career. His frustration boiled over with a scathing attack of Evernham during a session with the media.

    Mayfield blamed his team’s woes on Evernham's lack of attention dedicated to the program.

    "I don't talk to Ray. We don't see Ray very much," Mayfield told Yahoo! Sports' Jerry Bonkowski. Then Mayfield added, "I don't know if he's behind us or not."

    After the episode, both men backtracked and used their media spin doctors to smooth over the whole affair.

    But everyone in the NASCAR garage knew Mayfield wasn't a happy camper and that he was looking to move to another team – perhaps Michael Waltrip's new Toyota team.

    So when the announcement came earlier this week that Mayfield was to be replaced by Bill Elliott for this weekend's race at Watkins Glen, the writing was on the wall.

    On Friday morning in the garage, before a gaggle of reporters, Evernham made it official.

    "Jeremy Mayfield's employment with Evernham Motorsports has been terminated," Evernham said.

    The news came as no surprise, as most observers felt it was only a matter of time before Mayfield, who made the Chase the past two seasons, was given his walking papers.

    It’s not hard to imagine that Evernham's actions followed Mayfield confronting his team owner once more with allegations that perhaps Evernham's full attentions were focused elsewhere in the organization.

    After the firing, Mayfield brought his lawyers into the mix to file court papers over what he calls a "wrongful dismissal."

    Evernham, meanwhile, brought in the aging (or shall we say ageless) Elliott for this weekend and says he needs a "25-year-old Bill Elliott" to fill the seat on a full-time basis.

    That's where the "Danica Patrick" answer came from.

    Just weeks ago, Elliott Sadler's name had been tossed about as a possible replacement for Mayfield, starting next season. But now that Sadler officially is out at Yates, the rumors aren't as loud.

    It's easy to believe that instead of finding a 25-year-old Bill Elliott, Evernham will be forced to take one of the young, not-ready-for-prime-time drivers that have been bandied about as ready for Nextel Cup racing.

    The driving talent pool is pretty shallow right now, Ray. Good luck.

    The Mayfield saga wasn't the only developing story Friday at Watkins Glen.

    There still is smoke coming out of the ruins of the Yates camp, and there's a lot of damage control under way to keep the illusion that things are fine while the quest for sponsorship for the 88 car continues.

    Despite denials from both camps, there still are signs of a pending alliance involving both Roush Racing (or some elements of that organization) and Robert Yates Racing.

    Mark Martin, whose name has been linked to a possible Yates buyout, told reporters outside his hauler on Friday that team owner Jack Roush would really like the driver to have a four-car team of his own.

    Martin said he didn't think he had the time or the energy to do it, speaking as if he would be running the show himself.

    One scenario could have Martin moving his No. 17 team out of Roush and into his proposed four-car organization. The fourth car? How about Boris Said's new team, which is located next door to the Roush camp and in its present state could pass for a Roush team?

    Meanwhile, Martin is being pressured once more to run another full- or part-time Cup season next year, since young Todd Kluever may not be ready for Cup racing.

    It's hard not to reference the old saying "where there's smoke, there's fire" for this situation.

    Or maybe it's better to sing a few bars of Frida's "I Know There's Something Going On" – that's more apropos.

    August 7, 2006
    High emotion
    By Bob Margolis

    I spend a lot of time traveling across the country. Too much of that time, unfortunately, is spent either in airports or sitting on airplanes.

    The rest of the time is spent at a race track somewhere.

    The hours usually are long, as race days start around 6 a.m. and end around 9 p.m. These days, with NASCAR's TV-mandated later starting times, it can be closer to midnight before I leave the press box and get in my car for the drive back to the hotel.

    I'm not complaining, though. I've got a pretty cool job. And usually the people I meet who ask me what I do for a living tell me the same thing.

    Of course, all the traveling also means I spend a lot of days away from my kids and sleeping in hotel beds instead of the very comfortable king-size bed I have at home.

    Still, no matter how long the hours or how many days away from home I spend doing this pretty cool gig, there are moments I'm able to witness during the work day at the race track that make missing my kids and waking up at the crack of dawn worth it.

    Sunday was full of those moments.

    Disco is back.
    Yeah, he's happy (AP)
    Let me tell you about just one. It took place during the postrace press conference.

    Let me start out by saying that when you first meet Jimmie Johnson, he comes across a bit stiff and unemotional. I often think of him as being a "Stepford Driver" – you know, pre-programmed to act and say exactly the right things.

    I've rarely seen him angry, like a Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards or even a Jeff Gordon. Usually, Johnson is pretty level-headed whether he wins or finishes 32nd.

    But occasionally there are those rare glimpses of the man that reveal something deep inside that seems to be yearning to get out.

    Like the look on Johnson's face in the press conference when his team owner Rick Hendrick, who was sitting next to him, was telling the gathered media how incredible he thought Jimmie was – not just as a driver, but a person.

    You could see the smile on Johnson's face become something very different than what you usually see from him. It was like a child receiving supreme praise from a parent.

    That was real emotion. The real deal.

    Or when Johnson talked about how he almost gave up on winning perhaps the biggest race of his career after his tire gave way only 39 laps into the race.

    Some say Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus at times have a stormy relationship. If so, it's working for them.

    As Knaus explained how he talked Johnson off the ledge following the tire incident, you could tell from Johnson's face that Knaus was revealing something about Johnson that he was somewhat reluctant for people to know, but it was too late to stop him.

    Real emotion. Real life.

    It's why I love this job.

    Racing junkies like myself always look forward to the week of the Brickyard in Indy. There are four nights of racing in town, three of them across town on the short track at O'Reilly Raceway Park (ORP) and then Sunday at the big track.

    Thursday night was the Silver Crown race at ORP. Carl Edwards finished second. He loves those open wheel racers.

    Friday's truck race was your typical short track barnburner with four-wide racing on restarts that made you question why Craftsman Truck Series racing isn't the most popular form of NASCAR racing there is. The guys and gals who race those trucks either are extremely talented or extremely crazy. Or maybe a little bit of both.

    Saturday's Busch race was bit more tame, but still entertaining.

    Watching Kevin Harvick wrestle his Monte Carlo around the 5/8-mile oval – running a racing line that usually is run by sprint cars – left everyone's jaw on the floor. Harvick was able to put his race car anywhere he wanted and could pass at will, with an ease rarely seen at this level of racing.

    I get to come to Indy for two of its biggest races – the Indy 500 and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

    Each one is a marquee event for the series to which it belongs, and each has its own personality and feel.

    Both draw thousands of people. Yes, NASCAR does draw a huge Friday crowd for the first day of practice. But on race day, the crowd size for both races is quite similar.

    The fans are very different, though.

    Whereas Indy 500 fans dress on race day as though they bought much of their wardrobe at the local mall, NASCAR fans look like they bought the majority of their race day wardrobe at the souvenir trailer.

    When it comes to NASCAR fans, there is no question about who their favorite driver happens to be. They are wearing his name across their chest or back.

    And at the NASCAR race, everyone over the age of 21 is carrying a beer. Everyone. Even at 8 a.m. on race day!

    God bless the race fans.

    July 30, 2006
    Back to work
    By Bob Margolis

    For almost everyone involved with NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series, it's been a welcome weekend off.

    And it couldn't have come at a better time. Tempers have been short on the racetrack and you can see the long hours on the road showing on the faces of the team members in the garage.

    Everyone needed some time away from the routine.

    Well, everyone but the Cup drivers pulling double duty. They got to spend the weekend in St. Louis competing in the Busch Series race and continuing their efforts to chase down Kevin Harvick, who seems to be making that series' title chase a complete runaway.

    But then again, it's still July.

    Of course, not everyone got to spend his or her weekend off lying on the beach in some far off place. I'll bet some did.

    For the majority of us involved in the NASCAR circus, just to be able to wake up in your own bed on a Sunday morning is like a vacation.

    And what a wonderful time it has been.

    (Cue the alarm clock)

    Vacation is over.

    Those honey-do lists that have been accumulating since April (has it really been that long?) are done (well, almost).

    It's time to get back to work.

    Time to pack up the suitcase and board a plane for Indianapolis for the start of the final half-dozen races before the Chase begins and NASCAR's second season takes front and center.

    There are so many questions yet to be answered:

  • Will Tony Stewart remain in the top ten or bounce in and out for the final six races before the start of the Chase?
  • Can the Budweiser No. 8 team stop – or at least slow down – its freefall?
  • Can Denny Hamlin's team remain in the top ten?
  • Am I the only person who believes that Kevin Harvick could make history this year and be the first driver to win both the Busch and Nextel Cup titles in the same season?
  • What about the Roush duo of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, who find themselves in the not-too-comfortable position of being on the outside looking in?
  • Will Jeff Gordon find the consistency he needs to stay in the top ten?
  • And one more thing:

  • Do you ever wonder if Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth can keep their momentum going all the way through to Homestead?
  • I'm not convinced they can.

    Now, let's see, isn't there some drag racing or something to watch on television?

    July 25, 2006
    Danica's move
    By Bob Margolis

    IRL team Andretti Green Racing (AGR) announced Tuesday that it had signed IndyCar racing sweetheart Danica Patrick to a multi-year deal set to kick in next season.

    That loud sigh of relief heard shortly after the announcement came from the marketing staff at the IRL, which was scared it might end up dealing with Marco Andretti as its next star.

    Patrick still hasn't ruled out a move to NASCAR in the future.

    "NASCAR is not out for good, it's out for right now," Patrick said Tuesday.

    Still the IRL's. (AP)
    Don't expect the change in teams to necessarily increase Patrick's chances of winning, although driving for Andretti and his partners – Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, with the latter being one of the most underappreciated team bosses in all of racing – will give her a much better opportunity than she ever would have had driving for Bobby "It's my team and I'll run it the way I want" Rahal.

    Rahal has no use for Patrick anymore. He made that quite clear when he neglected to pick up the option on her contract.

    Instead, Rahal's attention now is entirely on his son Graham, who has shown to have more talent at 18 than his old man did at that age. Most observers believe that Bobby Rahal is grooming his young son for a future in Formula One.

    As for Patrick, now that her NASCAR charade is over and she has gotten the deal she wanted – with a team that could actually put a winning race car under her – the ball is in her court. No more excuses.

    After all, AGR was able to put Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti in victory lane.

    (By the way, those two are headed to AGR's American Le Mans Series team in 2007.)

    Patrick will have to deliver the goods, as she will be dealing with copious Anna Kournikova references on a weekly basis until she does.

    July 25, 2006
    Stephen and David who?
    By Bob Margolis

    Nineteen-year old Stephen Leicht made his Cup debut this weekend with Robert Yates Racing, which is just more evidence that the shortage of quality drivers in NASCAR has now reached a critical juncture.

    It's a serious issue with many in the NASCAR garage, as it can impact the future of the sport.

    Sure, Leicht may be a talented young driver, but is he truly ready for the likes of Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth? And how does he stack up against other young guns like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin?

    Also, can Yates give him the kind of tutelage he'll need to succeed? And how will the CitiFinancial folks use a 19-year-old in their marketing plans? Have they got some new kind of college loan program they are ready to announce?

    This one has failure written all over it.

    Then there is 30-year-old David Gilliland, who surprised everyone a few weeks ago by beating the Buschwhackers for his first Busch win. Gilliland did it by outsmarting some of the best drivers in the business, who happened to be driving some of the most well-prepared race cars in the country.

    Gilliland also is being courted by Yates and could end up in the M&M's Ford next season. But he isn't ready for a full-time Cup ride, and talking to him in the garage this past weekend, it's obvious that he knows it.

    Gilliland would be better served by taking the gig with Richard Childress, which would have him run a full Busch schedule in 2007 along with a few Cup races – which is what Gilliland says he wants to do anyway. He also would be teamed up with some of the best in the business – Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer. He can learn a lot from them.

    Gilliland represents a group of 30-plus-year-old drivers in America that have been overlooked.

    When the youth movement began in NASCAR and everyone was running to find the next 18-year old wunderkind, those guys were out there every weekend winning races and waiting for their break.

    These guys know how to win. They just need the car to do it in.

    If good competition is essential to the show every weekend, it's time NASCAR and its sponsors gave these drivers another look instead of recycling the names that have been talked about over the past few weeks.

    July 24, 2006
    Passion play
    By Bob Margolis

    LONG POND, Pa. – Auto racing is a source of tremendous passion for all involved, whether they be racers, spectators or even sponsors.

    I was witness to two different kinds of passion this past weekend at Pocono. One was constructive, the other destructive.

    Let's call it the "Story of Jack and Tony."

    First, there's Jack.

    Jack Roush came from a drag racing background. Many people do not know that, but Roush was an expert at making things go fast long before there was a Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin or Carl Edwards in his life.

    He and his partner Wayne Gapp dominated drag racing's Pro Stock category in the early 1970s, winning championships in all three racing organizations – the NHRA, IHRA and AHRA.

    After a successful half-dozen years at the top of his sport, his interest in drag racing waned but never evaporated. He still liked to figure out how to make huge amounts of horsepower and build fast cars.

    Fast forward to today and Roush's passion has been rekindled through his children Susan and Jack Jr., who currently are drag racing in the National Muscle Car Association (NMCA) and National Mustang Racers Association (NMRA) along with Susan's husband Dale.

    One happy dude.
    Roush enjoys himself. (Getty Images)
    They're quite good at it, these Roush kids, running their specially-equipped Mustangs and other Ford vehicles down the quarter-mile drag strip in under 10 seconds at speeds topping 130 mph.

    Roush's involvement is in developing and building the Ford-based engines for drag racing. His own Roush Performance builds the engines and sells them as "crate" motors to customers. A crate motor is a completely assembled engine that one can put in a car and immediately take racing.

    Roush's eyes lit up while talking about the program in the Cup garage Sunday morning. He was as excited as a kid talking about his newest toy.

    He is especially proud of Susan, who, he says, is the best at leaving the starting line using the "Christmas Tree" starting light system employed in drag racing.

    "She's fast off the line and can beat the boys," said Roush, ever the proud father.

    Roush talked about how he will be attending the coming weekend's NMCA/NMRA event at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., which is adjacent to the track where he races his NASCAR teams.

    But before that, he'll satisfy his other passions – flying and airplanes – by attending the annual Airventure flying show in Oshkosh, Wisc.

    Roush's passions are strong, constructive and indicative of a man mature in his years. He has taken his passions for racing and flying and built an empire, vast beyond belief. His NASCAR team's success is based upon the strength of his passion for winning and racing.

    Then there is Tony.

    One would be hard-pressed to find another race car driver with more talent or passion for racing than Tony Stewart, who will attest he'd rather be driving a race car than doing anything else.

    He has enjoyed enormous success behind the wheel, having won numerous races and titles – including two Nextel Cup championships.

    But his passion sometimes goes too far.

    It happened Sunday afternoon at Pocono when he let a racing incident between himself and Cup rookie Clint Bowyer spiral out of control.

    Sure, Bowyer may have pinched Stewart up against the SAFER barrier, forcing Stewart to have a minor brush with the wall. But instead of realizing it may have been unintentional and perhaps waiting a lap or two to cool down, Stewart thrust his fist out of his window and then intentionally rammed Bowyer's car.

    That began a chain-reaction wreck that involved Carl Edwards. The rest, as they say, is history.

    After the race, Stewart complained that the younger drivers just aren't listening to the veterans when it comes to on-track etiquette and discipline. During his postrace rant, Stewart evoked the name of Dale Earnhardt Sr., saying if he was still around there might not be a problem with the younger drivers.

    Maybe that's true.

    But Dale Sr. isn't around anymore, and whether Stewart likes it or not, he now is the one who most in the garage look to as their leader.

    Stewart is the new Earnhardt. He a winner both on and off the track, and it is time for him to finally accept the role as the spokesperson and leader in the NASCAR garage.

    But his stance of "do as I say and not as I do" speaks of hypocrisy at best and BS artist at worst.

    Stewart needs to use his passion to make the sport better. With words alone, he can make big changes, but he spoils his leadership potential with foolish and short-sighted actions.

    Stewart needs to understand that some of these young drivers don't have the natural ability for racing that he possesses. He needs to show a level of empathy for those who may not "get it," as he describes it, and continue to show the wisdom of a leader.

    It is time for Stewart to speak and act with the passion of a true champion and future legend of the sport before it's too late and his ability to lead becomes diminished.

    July 9, 2006
    Big words
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    JOLIET, Ill. – Robbie Reiser obviously was quite perturbed.

    His driver Matt Kenseth got punted out of the lead by Jeff Gordon, and he then watched as Kenseth crashed after crossing the finish line, leaving Reiser to bang and hammer the No. 17 Ford for 20 minutes afterward to get the car in some semblance of worthiness for postrace inspection.

    Sure, Reiser was ticked about all the above. But he took it all in stride.

    That is until he was asked about NASCAR president Mike Helton commenting shortly after the race that there would be no investigation or probe into Gordon's action.

    Helton called it a matter of a fast car against a slow car – nothing but a racing incident, the kind we've seen hundreds of times over the years.

    That flipped the switch on Reiser's anger. He could tolerate Gordon's actions somewhat, but not Helton's simplistic explanation.

    "You're trying to lap a race car and a guy runs into the back of you," Reiser said. "I don't really know if I agree with that deal. Mike Helton probably should keep his opinions to himself because he is the head of NASCAR, and if that's his opinion on how it should be done, then he should officiate the races differently from week to week."

    Don't be surprised if you get a call from Big Mike on Monday, Robbie.

    July 8, 2006
    Have sponsor, will travel
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    JOLIET, Ill. – It's a new twist on the old question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    In NASCAR terms, it's now something more like this: If a driver leaves his current team, will his sponsor follow?

    The answer is trending toward yes, with the latest example being Friday's announcement that UPS will follow Dale Jarrett to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2007.

    UPS just didn't want to have to buy new threads.
    Jarrett and UPS. (AP)
    While sponsors have followed drivers in the past, it has never been on the scale we've seen in the last year.

    When Scott Riggs moved to Evernham Motorsports, Valvoline went with him. When Michael Waltrip left Dale Earnhardt Inc. to start his own team, NAPA Auto Parts followed.

    And now we have UPS, which has been joined at the hip with Jarrett since 2001, choosing to stay with the driver rather than the owner that originally paired them together, Robert Yates.

    The reason isn't all that hard to understand. After relationships that have proven fruitful for a number of years, why abandon drivers who have become the faces of their corporate sponsors? Sticking together not only makes sense, it's good business.

    UPS in NASCAR without Jarrett just didn't seem fathomable. Who would they get to race the truck?

    When NAPA picked Waltrip over DEI, many thought executives of the auto parts retailer were crazy to walk away from the Earnhardt empire. But for NAPA, sticking with super-pitchman Waltrip simply was smart business. Like with Jarrett, there was an identity there that had been built up over several years together, as Waltrip has made NAPA more visible and has helped increase the bottom line.

    For all the millions of dollars they spend, sponsors now also are trading in loyalty by sticking with the guys who brought them to the dance.

    "Dale Jarrett has been an outstanding ambassador for the UPS brand both on and off the track and we expect more great things to come as we join him at Michael Waltrip Racing as the sponsor of his Toyota Camry," said UPS vice president of sponsorships Patrick Guilbert. "Since our relationship began in 2001, his contributions have helped UPS build a powerful sponsorship program that resonates with our employees, customers and NASCAR fans alike."

    Again, with the history they've built together, why get rid of Jarrett? Like marriage, it's cheaper to keep him.

    July 1, 2006
    Big buzz
    By Bob Margolis

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There seemed to be more of a buzz around the track this morning about the space shuttle – which was scheduled to lift off this afternoon about 50 miles south of here at Cape Canaveral – than Saturday night's race.

    It seemed that the older the people, the more excited they were. Those of us who could remember the excitement surrounding the space program in the '60s still get excited about space flight.

    When NASA postponed the flight until Sunday, everyone settled back into their prerace routines.

    Jeff Gordon appears to be the favorite among the media, with Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle all running closely behind him.

    I think it'll be the 24 car in victory lane. My dark horse is Denny Hamlin in the 11 car.

    With Vice President Dick Cheney visiting the track this afternoon, security is extremely tight. There are Secret Service personnel all over the garage and infield.

    He was to attend the prerace driver's meeting.

    I skipped it.

    Two-and-a-half hours before the start of the race, the grassy area in the infield and pit road were swarming with people.

    Many fans have taken to the tradition of writing messages of luck to their favorite drivers on the white painted portion of the checkered start/finish line. They've also started writing on the SAFER wall nearby.

    Of course, most of them are writing a No. 8 or No. 3 on them.

    Running a close third is the No. 20.

    It's hot and humid. But at least it's not raining.

    June 28, 2006
    Toyota time
    By Jon Baum

    Toyota's lineup is starting to come together nicely.

    With Red Bull's announcement over the weekend that Brian Vickers will make up half of the team's two-driver slate, Toyota now has anywhere between three and five of its expected six full-time Cup driver slots filled.

    Red Bull will field cars for Vickers and one other driver (often rumored to be Bill Elliott, who will make a few starts for the team later this year), Michael Waltrip will run cars for himself and Dale Jarrett (and possibly a third driver if sponsorship comes together), and Bill Davis will campaign Toyotas with Dave Blaney (probably) and another driver. Germain Racing, meanwhile, will run a part-time program with current Craftsman Truck Series points leader Todd Bodine.

    There is some talent in that stable.

    That's two Cup championships and a combined 76 Cup wins from Jarrett and Elliott (who also is making some starts for Waltrip this year), a handful of wins and hundreds of sponsor mentions from Waltrip – and a whole bunch of Daytona 500 victories from the three of them – a Busch title and a lot of potential with Vickers, and a not-flashy-but-will-bring-the-equipment-home guy in Blaney.

    No creepy king in this shot, thankfully.
    Toyota also has landed big sponsors. (AP)
    While it remains to be seen how competitive the cars will be off the truck – and really, expectations shouldn't be terribly high for the first season – the drivers are talented enough to give the manufacturer a strong baseline on which to build.

    Toyota won some races in its first year in the trucks in 2004, and its run toward the end of '05 and continuing into this year in that series has made NASCAR take notice.

    Sure, the trucks and Cup are different ballgames, but Toyota is showing that given a few years it can be very competitive in a series.

    Still, not all fans will be happy about it.

    But that's where the drivers come in.

    Forget, for a moment, the past champ provisionals and big sponsorship dollars some of these drivers attract. Instead, focus on the familiarity of names like Jarrett, Elliott, Waltrip and Vickers.

    Had Toyota come in with a bunch of lesser-known drivers – or even, gasp, foreign drivers – the "we hate Toyota" sentiment among some fans would have been even stronger.

    (Incidentally, that sentiment might be good for the sport, as Toyota's involvement will greatly spice up what has become a somewhat stale manufacturer battle.)

    And sure, Jarrett and Co. will lose some fans, but many will follow the drivers to Toyota, giving the manufacturer an instant following – and instant credibility.

    And with that, score a couple big wins for Toyota, even though we're still more than seven months away from its official Cup debut at Daytona.

    In doing a story on Matt Kenseth at Sonoma this past weekend, I asked him what would be the best- and worst-case scenarios for Sunday's road race, aiming for an answer around his own realistic expectations.

    Stupid (or poorly-worded) question, apparently.

    "Best-case scenario is always you win and the worst-cast scenario is you finish last. That's pretty easy," Kenseth laughed.

    Jeff Gordon's fiancée Ingrid Vandebosch could be seen playing with her new ring as Gordon talked about their engagement in his postrace/post-win news conference on Sunday.

    Huge ring, not surprisingly.

    Think Gordon got DuPont to cover that one?

    Champ Car-IRL merger talk heated up this past weekend when IRL head honcho Tony George said the two sides had agreed to the idea of an ownership-sharing arrangement for a unified series.

    The sides also might try to share a couple race weekends next year, and the Champ Car schedule could be tweaked to allow its teams to compete at the Indy 500.

    The open wheel split has been, correctly or not, named as one reason NASCAR's popularity has exploded over the past decade while interest in American open wheel racing has waned.

    While a unified open wheel series is absolutely necessary for the future of Indy (or Champ) car racing – and it would do wonders for open wheel – it's hard to imagine NASCAR's position as the top U.S. racing series being threatened.

    NASCAR isn't ready to comment on particulars of a potential IRL-Champ Car merger, as there really isn't anything official yet.

    But according to NASCAR managing director of corporate communications Ramsey Poston, while NASCAR certainly does want to remain No. 1, the more interest in and higher popularity of racing in the U.S., the better.

    "We are very much [in favor of] having a good motorsports environment," Poston said.

    June 25, 2006
    Different road
    By Bob Margolis

    SONOMA, Calif. – This weekend each year NASCAR transforms itself from a beer and chips crowd into a wine and cheese crowd.

    Northern California has held a special place in my heart since I lived in Marin County in the early '70s in a unique living situation rooted in the era. It was called a commune, and it's a memory from a time and a place long gone.

    Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, Mill Valley and Larkspur were places we hung out and played. The view from the top of Mount Tamalpais on a clear day is absolutely breathtaking, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Bay Area – Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco – on the other.

    Then there are the wineries, just a short drive north.

    One of the reasons this area is so special is that it produces some of the world's finest wines. There's real magic when you know you're in an area that is responsible for so much good time and enjoyment in people's lives.

    While having dinner at the Napa Valley Grille, I took a chance on a glass of Pinot Gris from MacMurray Vineyards. Not knowing the brand, I figured since the name sounded close to Jamie McMurray and it was spelled like former '60s television star Fred MacMurray, how could I go wrong?

    Little did I know it was produced by Kate MacMurray, the late television star's daughter, on ranch land owned by her father. Of course, that set me humming the theme song from "My Three Sons," undoubtedly one of the best comedy shows of its era.

    By the way, the wine is excellent!

    The Northern California race fans like to come to the race early. Real early.

    As I drove up to the track at 6 a.m., there already was a mile-long line of cars backed up on the highway. Only Talladega rivals that kind of traffic.

    The Sunday morning driver meeting usually is good for one unique and noteworthy item. This morning's was no exception.

    After race grand marshal Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame) was introduced to the crowd, he said, "Gentlemen, start to give me all of your drugs!"

    Everyone sat stunned for a second or two and then the room erupted in laughter. NASCAR president Mike Helton even jokingly made an attempt to confiscate Marin's credentials.

    Maybe not the right crowd to say something like that in front of, but many in the room loved it.

    NASCAR director of race operations David Hoots, who runs the driver meeting, remarked, "OK, that's Cheech Marin and Larry The Cable Guy in one season."

    Hoots was referring to an earlier race this season where Larry The Cable Guy was a grand marshal.

    June 23, 2006
    Road heat
    By Bob Margolis

    SONOMA, Calif. – Everyone is talking about the heat here at Sonoma, as mid-afternoon temperatures are expected to be hovering in the mid-90s all weekend long. That's quite a change from last year when it was in the upper 60s on race day.

    The heat will take its toll on both man and machine. Jeff Burton says the drivers get paid to be in shape.

    Hmmm … I can think of a few drivers out there who might be getting those checks without the working-out part.

    Seriously though, the heat does play tricks with brakes and transmissions, as well saturating the car and the driver's body. Try putting on some winter gear, a heavy coat and a helmet, and then sit in your car and home and blast the heater. That's what it's like.

    This is one of those weekends that is made in heaven for race fans.

    There's a little bit of everything going across North America, so grab a cool drink and some snacks, and it's "Ladies and gentlemen, start your remote controls."

    Looks like he could use a Coors Light. Think Chip would give him one?
    Drivers must deal with heat. (Getty)
    For starters, a study in road racing contrasts:

    Here in northern California, the Nextel Cup guys take on their first (of two) road course challenges. Across the continent in Montreal (site of a future Busch race – not announced yet, but soon), the Formula One boys take on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – which is named for a legendary Canadian driver.

    Which gets me thinking &ndash why haven't America's race tracks been renamed for famous drivers?

    Should Daytona International Speedway be renamed "Circuit Dale Earnhardt," perhaps? Or how about renaming Darlington "Richard Petty Speedway?"

    Where was I? Right, a weekend of racing.

    There has been a lot of talk about the Cup drivers who are doing double-duty here and at the Busch race in Milwaukee this weekend, but Chip Ganassi's sports car ace Scott Pruett will be racing here in California and in the Grand Am Series event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, on Saturday.

    Good thing Chip's got a fast jet.

    While NASCAR is on the West Coast, the Indy Racing League takes center stage in NASCAR country with its Saturday night race at Richmond. Watch this one. It's the IRL's equivalent of NASCAR's August Bristol race.

    There will be ultra-fast action, lots of broken race cars and cars that are a bit too fast for a ¾-mile track.

    Both the 48 and the 24 cars had some inspection issues this morning.

    The front fenders on those two Hendrick Motorsports Monte Carlos flared out a bit too much to fit the NASCAR templates. Jeff Gordon's team had to do some minor work on the 24 car, while Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 missed the mark by a bit more and ended up with Frankenstein-like sutures on its front fenders. The team later painted over the welding marks, but I wish it hadn't. The marks gave the Lowe's Chevy (and Johnson) a whole new tough-guy image.

    Speaking of Johnson and the 48 team, they're using a chassis built by the very successful Pratt & Miller Engineering and Fabrication team that builds the 24 Hour of Le Mans-winning Corvettes, as well as other championship-winning cars.

    Pratt & Miller also built the Chevys that road course hired gun Ron Fellows and his Cal Wells teammate Travis Kvapil will be driving this weekend.

    Should be interesting to see how well they do.

    One more thing.

    NASCAR needs to have more Cup races on road courses.

    June 17, 2006
    Fan amusements
    By Jon Baum

    BROOKLYN, Mich. – Fans make NASCAR go round.

    OK, so maybe the sponsors are the ones who really do that, but fan watching in the garage is far more interesting than sponsor watching – though I was tempted to ask Jeff Gordon about the recent DuPont Teflon controversy.

    During and between Saturday's Cup practice sessions here at Michigan International Speedway, two fans could be seen having their pictures taken with Fox's Dick Berggren, who was pretending to interview them.

    He then told the fans that he needed to get ready to go on air and had to "change hats."

    I wasn't sure if he was speaking literally or metaphorically.

    Several minutes later I saw Berggren waiting outside the No. 24's garage stall. He had indeed changed hats.

    Speaking of Fox, the "Hollywood Hotel" that Chris Myers and Co. host their portion of the broadcast from has these giant yellow tubes going into it, making it look like it's been quarantined.

    (Maybe it should be?)

    It is located in the infield, just inside pit road. Fans were lined up and down the inside wall of pit road watching the Cup cars practice. It's not the most exciting part of the weekend, but fans who are able to get down there do get pretty close to the track and are treated to cars running at full speed.

    Many can be seen taking pictures of the cars as they go by. Is it just me, or will many of those shots end up being the ones that seemed far more exciting at the time?

    Many fans also take pictures of themselves or their friends with/in front of their favorite cars and drivers, or in front of track landmarks. Those are the keepers. People, usually, are more interesting than inanimate (or even moving) objects.

    I saw the sign.
    There are guidelines. (Jon Baum, Y! Sports)
    Also on pit road are Gatorade Fueling Stations, which are perched roughly six feet off the ground, making for a cruel test of will for some shorter fans desperate for a cool beverage on a relatively hot day.

    (Watching one fan stretch was such a tragic sight, it wasn't hard to imagine men in white lab coats taking notes and clocking how long it took the fan to reach his reward, or whether the fan would just give up. Then those men in their while lab coats likely would cackle madly and watch replays of the British Grand Prix.)

    I was curious whether there indeed was Gatorade in there, or if it was actually water. Or maybe beer (hey, a guy can hope). So I went up pit road and did about a half-dozen taste tests at various Fueling Stations (being 5-foot-9, the spout is well within an arm's length). All Gatorade. And all the same flavor, no less. No idea which one. It was green/light blue-ish. Any sport drink experts out there know the one?

    Either way, it was tasty, as sugar water so often is.

    As I infused electrolytes into my system, other fans on pit road could be seen waving to their favorite drivers as they rolled by. The drivers should wave back. It's only courteous.

    Some fans went all the way to the end of pit road to get as close to Turn 1 as possible. Here at Michigan, pit road ends well short of the turn – though MIS does have some infield stands near the start of the turn – but some shorter tracks allow fans to go all the way to the end of the front straight. Standing there and watching cars fly into Turn 1 is a blast – certainly in practice, but definitely come race time. If you ever get the chance …

    Even on Saturday, standing near the end of pit road had its benefits, as many drivers gassed it hard to accelerate on to the track just as they passed the NASCAR official standing in the last pit stalls. Loud noises and high speeds. NASCAR's bread and butter.

    A look into the stands during practice revealed dozens upon dozens of fans who had come out to watch the sessions. It actually is a good time to check out the vendors at/around the track or hit the garage for some photos and autographs.

    One fan was bragging to his friends that he had gotten Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s autograph. Less than 10 seconds later, Matt Kenseth (who understandably was rushing to get to his car for the start of the second session) turned the fan down. It's ebb and flow, autograph seeking.

    Media interviews, fan sightseeing, autograph hunting and idle (or idling) conversations often are interrupted by the most annoying but also most necessary sound in the garage.

    No, it's not a loud engine, nor is it crewmen banging endlessly in the garage stalls.

    It's a track official's whistle, which is sounded as a slightly more polite way (though that's arguable) of saying, "get the hell out of the way before you get run over."

    A vehicle sitting in the garage not threatening to run anyone over was a green, yellow and black FlexFuel "corn fed" pace truck – sporting an odd paint scheme – which advertised that it runs on ethanol.

    A young fan, maybe seven years old, walked by, looked at the truck and exclaimed, "That's sweet!"

    Not sure if he thought the truck looked cool, or whether he approved of GM's efforts to introduce more vehicles into the general marketplace that are alternative fuel-friendly, thus potentially diminishing the nation's reliance on foreign oil.

    He probably just thought it looked cool.

    Also in the garage, and I've mentioned this before, one inevitably will see people – including crew members – lighting up cigarettes. That just kills me. Really, that's not a fire hazard?

    It's actually allowed in some areas of the garage, but not, of course, near the Sunoco fueling station (which presumably does not serve green Gatorade – though jet fuel is one offering there).

    But the biggest crime of the afternoon came in front of Jeff Gordon's hauler when a member of the No. 31 team grabbed a Gatorade from the No. 24's cooler. Don't think nobody saw you do it, dude.

    June 17, 2006
    Great Kahne
    By Jon Baum

    BROOKLYN, Mich. – Jeff Gordon came oh so close to knocking Kasey Kahne off the pole here at Michigan on Friday.

    Kahne almost did that himself the next day.

    Right after qualifying, Gordon lamented falling just short of the top spot.

    "Man, I just …," Gordon said to Kahne, holding is fingers close together as to show how far off he was from the pole. "I just wanted to make him sweat a little."

    Replied Kahne, "I was sweating for sure."

    But Kahne did indeed hold on to the pole, and the weekend was off to a good start.

    Kahne is a budding star in this sport, with many often comparing him to a young Gordon. And the attention he receives in the garage, while not quite rivaling the Gordons and Juniors, steadily is increasing.

    It was evident between practice sessions Saturday, as many fans swarmed Kahne for pictures and autographs. He doesn't seem to mind taking the time for the fans – which he also did after qualifying the previous day – though when being photographed by them he often displays this sort-of-genuine, sort-of-nervous half-smile.

    It wouldn't be the last time fans gathered around Kahne and his car on Saturday, as the Washington native scraped up the side of his pole-winning ride during the day's second practice.

    Shortly thereafter, a crowd sometimes three deep surrounded the No. 9 crew as they tried to bang out the dents and fix the car so that they might avoid switching to a backup car, which would mean losing the pole. And by all indications and reports, the damage wasn't extensive and a backup car would not be needed.

    While repairs continued, Kahne emerged from his team's hauler and began his trek to the motor home area of the track. Along the way, he again was surrounded by autograph and picture seekers.

    But despite having a rough afternoon, Kahne smiled, signed autographs, shook hands and chatted with fans and friends of friends of his.

    If he ever does reach Gordon and Junior levels of attention, it seems Kahne will handle it well.

    Incidentally, Kahne's No. 9 has a special paint scheme this weekend promoting Adam Sandler's new movie, "Click," in which Sandler's character comes across a remote control which allows him to pause, rewind or fast forward real life.

    (The movie co-stars Kate Beckinsale. That just seemed worth mentioning.)

    Too bad Kahne didn't have that remote here on Saturday. He could have rewound his practice session and avoided his little run-in with the wall altogether.

    June 16, 2006
    Petty talk
    By Jon Baum

    BROOKLYN, Mich. – The King hasn't quite abdicated his thrown.

    Richard Petty is going to race again.

    No, he won't be driving a third Petty Enterprises car here at Michigan this weekend. Rather, Petty will run one of his '72 Dodge Chargers at the Goodwood Festival of Speed next month in England.

    Petty will pilot the restored Charger in the 1.16-mile Hillclimb competition, which is the festival's marquee event.

    Petty wasn't even sure of the last time he drove a competitive car at high speeds (he says he has taken laps in driving school cars), though he eventually decided it was a not-quite-full-speed session at Indy in 1993.

    Still, he wasn't fearful of being rusty when he received the invitation to compete in the Hillclimb.

    "I didn't hesitate," said Petty, who turns 69 next month. "I got a free trip to England."

    Petty already has gotten in the car – which he drove during his fourth championship season – which doesn't have much of the safety equipment jammed into today's Cup cars, and the difference is noticeable.

    (Petty says he won't be wearing a HANS device so that he can remain period-accurate).

    Put 'em up!
    The King in Charlotte. (Getty)
    He said climbing into the 34-year-old car felt like being in his living room, it was so spacious. And that comfort level is important, considering his last race in a Cup car was in the '92 season finale at Atlanta.

    While he could participate in similar events, don't expect this foray to lead Petty back into a race car with any frequency.

    "As far as actually getting in the race car and actually racing it, I'm probably over that part of it," Petty said. "Maybe not in my mind, but in my body. You always feel like you can do it, but your mind tells you you're smart enough not to try to do it."

    In the meantime, he'll continue to focus on helping Petty Enterprises' two Cup cars – driven by his son Kyle Petty and Bobby Labonte – continue to improve.

    Not that the two teams heed his advice on race day.

    "If I stay in the pits and talk to them [during the race], they don't pay any attention to me, so there's no use staying there," he said.

    The media also asked Petty whether he'd drive again, about women in the sport, whether he wears his trademark sunglasses and hat when he goes overseas – the usual slate.

    But it took a nearby fan to cut through to the really important stuff as Petty exited the media center.

    "Hey Richard, you still eating those fried bologna sandwiches?," the fan asked.

    Said Petty, "You better believe it."

    Among the other topics that came up was the use of video games in NASCAR and whether they really can help drivers prepare for an upcoming track.

    It's a hot topic right now, as Denny Hamlin's only Pocono experience was with a video game prior to winning there last weekend. Then there's Brad Coleman, who made his Busch Series debut last weekend at Nashville. Coleman claims video games have "gotten me to where I am right now in my career. Video games are definitely an essential to success in racing."

    Petty isn't necessarily as enthusiastic about whether a video game can help a driver.

    "I have no idea whether it's worth anything or not," said Petty, who did admit that the games probably can help drivers improve their reflexes.

    But he also warned that those playing the games encounter the same obstacles over and over again. That's not how it works in the real world.

    "Every 100 yards is different [on the race track]." Petty said. "You never repeat anything you do. You might think you do, but you don't."

    One driver hoping to translate virtual success to racing reality this weekend is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who claims he does well at Michigan when playing video games.

    "This is one of the tracks that's very popular with video gamers, I'll say that," Junior said.

    But in 13 Cup races here, he has no top-fives and just two top-10s.

    "As good of a driver as I am and as good of a team as I'm with, you figure sooner or later you're going to win one of them here," he said. "We just try to be positive."

    Incidentally, I recently won the Daytona 500 in my EA Sports game, but my team's 1½-mile program is way behind.

    Sort of sounds like Jeff Gordon of last year. Maybe I should have campaigned for the No. 25 seat while I had the chance.

    Walking around the garage area during a Cup practice is a dangerous activity.

    Cars frequently come charging back to their stalls every few laps to tweak their setups, and with practice time as fleeting as it is, drivers and teams are in a hurry.

    There are few safe havens. Anywhere near a team's garage stall is dangerous, though another media member says he tries to stand behind stacks of tires.

    And really, we should be staying out of their way.

    But the drivers aren't the only team members working, as crewmen can be seen wheeling tires and other equipment around the garage during the practice sessions. And they have just as much right to be there as the drivers, who sometimes seem to rev their engines, literally, in frustration if a crew member gets in their way.

    It gets more complicated when the Cup garage isn't "hot" – meaning more people can get in – during pre-qualifying inspection, which happened to coincide Friday with a Craftsman Truck Series practice here.

    So, basically, people are getting out of the way of crew members who are dodging cars, which are in danger of being plowed by a truck at any time.

    Add in Nicole Lunders and Eva Bryan, and that actually might be something people would watch.

    June 10, 2006
    Cold day in the Poconos
    By Bob Margolis

    LONG POND, Pa. – The climate is one of the reasons I love living in Pennsylvania.

    Call me crazy, but I like the cool weather we get in this part of the world – even in June.

    I live about an hour's drive from the Pocono race track and when I walked out of the house this morning, I knew it would be a bit chilly at the track, which literally is in the mountains.

    Little did I expect a temperature drop of nearly 20 degrees and wind blowing nearly 30 mph. It was cold enough to see your breath.

    There were some patches of drizzle as well.

    Too cold to be consistent?
    Steve Letarte was chilly. (AP)
    Ah, Pennsylvania weather.

    The cool temps made for some fast returns to the garage after only one lap during Saturday's first practice session, which began at 9:30 a.m.

    The weather on race day is expected to be warmer, around 68 for a mid-afternoon high. At least there isn't any rain in the forecast.

    This is the coldest weather at a race track this season since the snow day in Bristol in April.

    With several of Nextel Cup's biggest names flying off to Nashville for the Busch race – and with the cold temperatures – drivers were more ghostlike than usual. Within minutes of the end of Happy Hour, none were to be found in the garage.

    I guess I'll never get used to how most drivers can't seem to disappear fast enough when their job behind the wheel is done.

    No major problems were reported after both practice sessions and there were no reported engine changes. We may just have a race with everyone starting from the position they qualified in.

    Former Cup driver Ernie Irvan, a victim of severe brain trauma caused by two racing accidents, was at the track Saturday to promote the upcoming Leadership and Awareness to Promote Safety (LAPS) events at both Michigan International Speedway and Pocono.

    "Every 23 seconds, someone in America suffers a brain injury," Irvan said.

    His Race2Safety foundation's goal is to raise awareness of how to prevent brain injuries in both children and adults.

    "We'd like people to just think before they do things that are hazardous, like riding a motorcycle, a bicycle, or for kids, riding their scooter," Irvan said.

    He added that he's not trying to fund a cure for brain injuries.

    "I just want to do everything I can to prevent them from ever happening."

    Richard and Kyle Petty, Jeff Green, Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Burton, Martin Truex Jr. and Ken Schrader had agreed to participate in the events' walks on the race tracks, and Jeff Gordon also has made a tentative commitment.

    For a minimum donation, fans can walk on the track with these drivers and others at either Michigan (later this month) or Pocono (next month).

    This is a real worthwhile cause. Ernie Irvan is as real as it gets.

    Get a helmet and show your kids and the world that you care.

    June 2, 2006
    Back in the groove
    By Bob Margolis

    DOVER, Del. – After spending an entire month of all Indy, all the time, it felt good to be back in the NASCAR garage Friday.

    It also took the better part of the day just to get caught up on all the news, changes, rumors, etc.

    Every year the silly season gets started early and this year is no exception. Everyone seems to be talking about where Casey Mears is headed for next season, and at least five people asked if I knew whether Elliott Sadler was going to stay with Yates.

    Ricky Rudd looks like a man who definitely is enjoying retirement.

    He's back in a Cup car as Tony Stewart's sub, but don't count on seeing Rudd back in a full-time Cup ride in the future.

    "I am not ready to commit to anything," Rudd said.

    That's about it, in a nutshell.

    Why would Rudd want to get back into the grind of 38 race weekends plus testing and appearances now that he's had plenty of time to sleep late, smell the roses and race dirt bikes with his son?

    Yes, he's still a racer, but he's got that covered.

    How well do you think Tony's suit fits him?
    Familiar sight. Sort of. (AP)
    Rudd recently tested a Daytona Prototype at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which he enjoyed very much. He also has been keeping himself in shape racing shifter karts, which both F1 and IndyCar drivers use to stay sharp.

    It's a safe bet that Rudd, who was a road course ace during his Cup career, will be driving a Daytona Prototype next season – if the money is right.

    In the meantime, Gibbs will keep Rudd on call for the next month. In addition to Dover, plans call for Rudd to be ready to substitute for the injured Stewart at Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma – three tracks, like Dover, where Rudd has had great success in the past.

    Robby Gordon is racing a unique double this weekend.

    He qualified his Cup car for Sunday's race, but on Saturday he'll be racing in Ensenada, Mexico, where he'll be defending his title in the Baja 500 off-road race.

    "I wish it came on a weekend when we were racing in Vegas or Phoenix," Gordon joked. "It's a long flight from here, but it gives me time to rest."

    Paul Menard will sit in for Gordon during Saturday's two Cup practice sessions.

    Gordon also described this year's Indy 500 as "an excellent race."

    He almost won the Memorial Day weekend classic in 1999 but fell short to eventual winner Kenny Brack when he ran out of fuel with one lap to go.

    "I thought young [Marco] Andretti was going to get it," Gordon said, referring to this year's Indy 500 in which Andretti lost on the final lap to Sam Hornish Jr. "He cashed his check a little too early on the back straightaway."

    Gordon once more expressed his desire to race at Indy, but with several representatives from his new Cup sponsor standing within earshot, Gordon reiterated that his focus was on NASCAR.

    The press was crowded around Kyle Busch's hauler after the first practice session to get his reaction to being handed a stiff penalty by NASCAR for his on-track shenanigans last weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

    Busch was very polite and answered questions in the to-be-expected, semi-rehearsed Hendrick Motorsports fashion – a la Jimmie Johnson.

    Busch reminded everyone that Casey Mears took the blame for what happened on the track, but Busch did take responsibility for his reaction (throwing his HANS device at Mears' car).

    It all seems so silly, doesn't it?

    When the press gaggle left, Busch enjoyed discussing a completely different subject – his favorite NFL football team, the Denver Broncos, whose quarterback Jake Plummer recently had a run-in with the law after a road rage incident.

    Parallel lives, perhaps?

    There was a huge cheer from the Dover crowd when Jimmie Johnson spun his Monte Carlo SS on the front straight during his qualifying run. Somehow, the Cup points leader managed to keep his race car off the wall.

    Ryan Newman sweated out the rain delay after qualifying. Had qualifying been canceled and the field set by points, the Penske driver, who is having a miserable year, would have missed out on his first pole of the season.

    I still can't figure out how a driver can go from winning eight races and 11 poles just three years ago to struggling to collect top-10 finishes this season. Newman's last victory came at New Hampshire last fall, 22 races ago.

    Got an early favorite for the Brickyard 400? If not, make it Kasey Kahne, who admitted Friday that he loves the track and wants to win at Indy "really bad."

    "I think it would be great to win there."

    Kahne finished second to Tony Stewart in last year's race.

    Kahne also commented on his participation in the recent Goodyear tire tests at Indy, saying Goodyear has found "part of the tire" they want to use from those sessions. He added that when everyone comes for the open test in July, the tire compound will be complete.

    Kahne gives Goodyear high marks for their efforts.

    "I was real happy we were able to work with Goodyear and they listened," Kahne said.

    The rains that interrupted the afternoon's activities and delayed the start of the Craftsman Truck race are expected to be a factor for Saturday's Busch race and final Cup practice sessions.

    June 1, 2006
    Good and evil
    By Jon Baum

    So Kyle Busch is in trouble again.

    And this time, it's costing him.

    No, this isn't about the somewhat hefty $50,000 fine NASCAR levied. That's not the point.

    Or the points, so to speak.

    For tossing a safety device at Casey Mears' car following their wreck at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Sunday, NASCAR docked Busch 25 driver points and placed him on probation until the end of the year.

    (Right here is where we'd consider a tangent about Busch making Rick Hendrick look bad, as the team owner also was docked 25 points for Busch's temper, but Jeff Gordon also is on probation and Chad Knaus spent four weeks in NASCAR purgatory, so it's not as if the Hendrick organization has a pristine record this season. So we'll just keep this focused on Busch.)

    Many of our readers have written in complaining about Kyle Busch and his big brother, calling them spoiled, saying they are whiners, etc. But whenever these penalties are levied for non-competition infractions – we're not talking about illegal carburetors or roofs being too low – many readers also write in complaining that NASCAR is taking the personality out of the sport.

    C'mon, two officials with helmets can't control the Shrub?!
    The incident. (AP)
    Let the drivers be themselves, especially when they drum up so much attention and controversy for the sport. It's all in fun, and this sport has thrived for years on the idea of heroes and villains.

    Curb the driver personalities and you risk losing the villains, they say.

    But do these fines and point penalties really dampen personalities?

    Further, does a driver expressing himself always have to end with a questionable gesture or some thrown equipment?

    No, it doesn't.

    Take a quick poll to find out which drivers are the biggest "personalities" in the sport, and a guy like Michael Waltrip might come out on top.

    Sure, he gets testy now and then, but mostly he's known for being goofy, amiable, good-natured … and sponsored by NAPA.

    Rusty Wallace, meanwhile, sometimes was good-natured during his driving days, and sometimes he wasn't. But no matter his mood, his personality was always strong, often evidenced by his opinions.

    Wallace and Waltrip don't need to throw tantrums to be colorful.

    Now obviously NASCAR would have no reason to come down hard on Waltrip for being a funny guy or on Wallace for being opinionated. But even some of the sport's edgier personalities can shine through without throwing punches or kicking tape recorders.

    Or can they?

    Kevin Harvick can be jovial one minute but then spend an entire weekend ripping Kurt Busch apart – and laughing all the while (well, most of the while, anyway). Of course, Harvick and his crew went ballistic at Richmond a few years back and attacked Ricky Rudd and his car.

    Then there's Tony Stewart, who also can be the funniest guy in the sport one minute and lunging for Matt Kenseth's crew chief the next.

    The common element? Volatility and unpredictability.

    Often it's inappropriate, often it's embarrassing. But almost always, it's fun.

    After all, it gives fans plenty to talk about.

    As did Kyle Busch on Sunday.

    Maybe you like him, maybe you don't, but can anyone really say Busch is bad for the sport?

    Well, OK, surely some can.

    For Busch's part, he was apologetic afterward.

    "The bottom line is I made a mistake that's a poor reflection on everyone I care about and there isn't anything that justifies it," Busch told the AP after the penalty was handed down.

    (Busch might feel even worse if he misses the Chase by less than 25 points.)

    The key is for these drivers is to push the envelope without going too far past the line – and to do something that riles up the fans and drivers but isn't worth apologizing for.

    That's the mark of a top-notch, great-for-the-sport villain.

    May 27, 2006
    Cartoon rain
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    CONCORD, N.C. – The weather was enough to make you want to go home, but the end result was more than worth staying for.

    Friday's much-hyped world premiere of the movie "Cars" at Lowe's Motor Speedway endured a rain delay prior to the start and audio problems for several artists that performed on-stage during a mini-concert before the debut, but it ended on a high note with a massive fireworks show that was a fitting symbol of how good the movie was.

    In a sense, Lowe's Motor Speedway was turned into the world's largest drive-in theater – well, 35,000 people had to drive to the track, at least, so they could sit in the Turn 2 stands and watch the movie on four massive screens in the infield.

    Heck, even Darrell Waltrip did the Icky Shuffle after winning a 12-lap pre-movie "exhibition" race where he was the only star among a cast of no-name drivers.

    Movies and racing at the same time? Cool!
    Big screen indeed. (AP)
    Comedian Larry the Cable Guy, who speaks the part of Mater the tow truck driver in the animated film, hosted the pre-movie stage show and did a great job. The red-hot comedian definitely got-r-done, but he could have stood to ditch the huge stack of cue cards in his hands that he kept reading from.

    Rock-n-roll legend Chuck Berry performed "Route 66" from the movie soundtrack, but he endured horrible audio glitches that caused him to start and then stop, and leer at the sound technicians who first couldn't get his guitar amplified and then couldn't get his microphone volume right, either.

    While you have to cut Berry some slack (he is pushing 80 years old), his performance was marginal at best, with several instances of missed or wrong chords. The backup band that supported him eventually wound up having to considerably tone down its own volume because it was Berry's show and his chords, right or wrong.

    After performing his song, Berry then did a bizarre act where he walked across the stage pointing his guitar like a rifle at the crowd. There was no rhyme or reason, but he did so for about 30 seconds before laughing and scooting off the stage.

    On the flip side, country star Brad Paisley performed three songs – he was slated to only do two – including his mega-hit "Mud on the Tires," which he dedicated "to all the rednecks in North Carolina."

    One of the best parts of the night was the Walt Disney Co. donating $1 million to charity – matching $500,000 donations made to Kyle and Patty Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp as well as Bruton Smith's Speedway Charities.

    Most of the movie's stars sat through the rain, including Owen Wilson, Cheech Marin, Bonnie Hunt and others, along with several current Nextel Cup drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who has a minor speaking part in the movie) and Jeff Gordon.

    Although the media was embargoed from printing reviews of the movie until its official June 9 debut, I can say this: it's definitely two-thumbs-up material. It'll be a hard act to follow for Will Ferrell's "Talladega Nights," due to be released August 4.

    While some of the G-rated plot seemed a little hokey at times, the animation by Pixar was nothing short of outstanding. Think of it as "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story" and "Monsters Inc." – only better, and on wheels. It's no wonder it took a reported five years to bring the finished project to the big screen.

    Wilson is the star – well, his voice is, actually – playing the role of Lightning McQueen, while Bonnie Hunt voices McQueen's love interest, Sally. Newman is the voice of the stodgy and bitter Doc Hudson, and Larry the Cable Guy steals plenty of scenes as Mater.

    Racing legend Richard Petty also has a role in the movie as the retiring Strip Weathers, naturally nicknamed "The King." TV sportscaster Bob Costas is dubbed Bob Cutlass and Waltrip, playing a pseudo version of himself, is Darrell Cartrip.

    So what if 35,000 fans, media and celebrities got a little wet Friday night? It was well worth it.

    May 20, 2006
    Runnin' 'shine
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    CONCORD, N.C. – It's a well-known fact that NASCAR's roots are steeped in moonshine running, where lead-footed bootleggers piloted high-performance cars to outrun the cops and rival moonshiners.

    The finish line six or seven decades ago was the delivery point.

    Don't look now, but moonshine is back in racing – and it's legal this time.

    Nextel Cup driver/owner Kirk Shelmerdine announced a new sponsorship here at Lowe's this weekend with Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, which bills itself as the only official and legal moonshine in the Carolinas.

    "We're the only legal flavored moonshine on the marketplace," said Joe Michalek, president of Piedmont Distillers, Inc., manufacturers of Catdaddy. "We have federal and state approval, both for the label as well as for the formula and facility."

    Is that alcoholic fruit?
    Shelmerdine's new gear.
    Michalek said he couldn't have found a better partner. His company has just three employees, including himself, and Shelmerdine's team is a three-man operation as well.

    "Like Kirk, we're fighting against the big guys and just trying to make the big show," Michalek said.

    Granted, today's moonshine is not your grandfather's moonshine. Unlike the 190-proof mixtures of yore, Shelmerdine's new sponsor's product is only 80 proof and is more of a boutique drink that goes better mixed – with cola, ginger ale, cranberry juice and the like – than straight-up.

    "We make every product in a copper-pot still, it's all small batches, based on a corn product, we add our own flavor and ingredients, we do all the government reporting, pay our taxes and we're licensed and registered to actually make the product, which is different from the traditional side," Michalek said.

    Shelmerdine will wear the Catdaddy colors this weekend and also for next weekend's Coca-Cola 600, as well as for October's UAW-GM Quality 500, all at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

    "There's been a long history of moonshine in the past with racing," Michalek said. "But obviously as racing has come a long way, so has our product. We're legal, the sport's huge and there's no better venue for us to get a product that tastes great out in front of hundreds of thousands of people. That's why we're so excited to be here."

    Shelmerdine has struggled for sponsorship over the last couple of years. That's why his new deal has him quite excited.

    "I just feel like we're barely getting started," Shelmerdine said. "I'm just now getting two hands on the rope, if you will."

    While I wish Shelmerdine and his new sponsor well, I do have one complaint: where are the free samples for the media?

    May 20, 2006
    Tony talk
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    CONCORD, N.C. – Now here's a scary thought: Tony Stewart, member of the media.

    The man known at times as "Terrible Tony" soon will be co-host of his own two-hour national radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio. The show will have a trial run later this fall and then become a regular weekly staple on Tuesday evenings beginning in January.

    Stewart said the show, which will include audience call-ins, will be no-holds-barred. He'll talk about whatever his on his mind, unedited, unadulterated – and he won't get fined 25 points if he lets a misplaced cuss word drop here or there.

    Think of it as Howard Stern going stock car racing – with Fox TV announcer Matt Yocum as Stewart's sidekick/co-host.

    "Everybody knows I like to talk, so this is a natural high for us, obviously," Stewart said. "When they said we can talk about anything I want, whenever I want, there was no second-guessing."

    Stewart added that his first foray into the broadcast world will produce the kind of show a mother could love – his mother, that is.

    Well, maybe.

    "If both of our moms are listening, they might not agree with our opinions on stuff, but they're not going to be embarrassed the next day – well, mine probably will be, but that's all right because she's still on my payroll," Stewart quipped.

    Stewart's show follows fellow driver Jimmie Johnson's weekly soiree on XM Satellite Radio that debuted earlier this year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also has a show.

    Sirius will become the exclusive satellite radio provider of NASCAR on Jan. 1, and will offer broadcast coverage of all races on the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series, as well as a dedicated 24-hour-a-day NASCAR channel.

    But I can't help but wonder …

    What if Tony the radio co-host asks Tony the driver a question he doesn't want to answer? Will he say "no comment" or maybe knock the microphone out of his own hand?

    This is going to be very interesting. Tony Stewart, media member – God help us all.

    May 19, 2006
    Musical Mark
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    CONCORD, N.C. – Let's see, the stage name "Marky Mark" is taken. So too is "Eminem."

    What about MC Martin? Maybe Eminem Lite? Or how about M-Dawg?

    What does this have to do with NASCAR?

    The guy you'd least expect to be a fan of rap and hip hop now has a new theme song devoted to him and his career: "Start Your Engines, The Mark Martin Rap Anthem."

    You read that write, dawg.

    Performed by rapper Budda Early and produced by New York-based hip hop impresarios Kevin Dent and Derrick Garrett, the song has a gritty, urban beat and feel to it. It traces Martin's history from his days in his native Batesville, Ark., to his impending "retirement" to the Craftsman Truck Series next season.

    "I love it," Martin said Friday here at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I think they did a great job. I know people think it's kind of funny, and my wife Arlene and [son] Matt tell me I'm too old to listen to rap and get into all that stuff.

    "That is the right format for an anthem. Can you imagine AC/DC singing a song like that? I don't think so. I think it's pretty cool."

    Bad rapper?
    The man. (AP)
    Martin's love of rap and hip hop is no gimmick. He likes artists like Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and Eminem.

    "A lot of people are very surprised that I like rap and hip hop," Martin said. "A lot of people are very surprised, including my own family, when they catch me listening to country."

    I couldn't help but ask Martin that if he was a rapper, what would he call himself?

    "Not very good," he said. "That's what you'd call me."

    That doesn't quite have the same melodic ring as 50 Cent or Ludacris, but then again, those guys can't drive a race car like NASCAR's resident rap fan.

    "To me, when you listen to a rap song, a lot of times, if it's done real well, the lyrics really mean a lot more in those songs," Martin said. "I listen to the lyrics. I listen to the story, to what the artist is saying. That's different and that's some of what's drawn me into this new music."

    May 19, 2006
    A better Kurt
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    CONCORD, N.C. – Even Kurt Busch haters can't help but feel good after Friday's announcement that Busch's newly-formed charitable foundation will donate $1 million to Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp. The money will go toward building a 28,000 square-foot indoor sports and activity dome.

    "It's a good launch for the Kurt Busch Foundation and [shows] how serious I am about it and the initiative to try to get kids into sports and put a smile on their faces at the end of the day," Busch said.

    The donation is not part of the community service or fine Busch received in Phoenix for his run-in with a sheriff's deputy. Rather, the 2004 Nextel Cup champ said it's the first of several planned donations his foundation will make to various groups and causes.

    "I've been to the camp quite a bit and this will make it to where I really want to be there and put my hands in the mix and make a difference with the children," Busch said. "It's very special to me, and to have fun with it is the No. 1 thing."

    Friday's gesture comes right from Busch's heart, even though his critics might think the driver known as one of the most hated men in sports doesn't have one.

    "Your heart pours out to [those kids]," Busch said. "They can't live ordinary lives or sign up for Little League in their community. You feel like you can make a small impact in their lives if they've got a place where they can fix it together and all feel welcome."

    May 5, 2006
    No practice is perfect
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    RICHMOND, Va. – One and done.

    If teams were unprepared for Friday's qualifying session for Saturday's Crown Royal 400 here at Richmond, they were tough-luck Charlies.

    In a scheduling quirk, Nextel Cup drivers enjoyed – for lack of a better word – just one two-hour practice session Friday afternoon.

    That's it. Just one. No second or third practice. No Happy Hour.

    If their car wasn't up to snuff afterwards, qualifying would be rough, with Saturday's race having the potential to be even rougher.

    Part of the reason NASCAR and Richmond International Raceway scheduled just one practice session for Cup drivers is that Friday night's Busch Series event followed Cup qualifying.

    Practice makes boredom, apparently.
    Gordon takes time to ponder. (Getty)
    The other reason is that all Cup teams took part in a three-day practice session at RIR earlier this year, one of only six NASCAR-sanctioned tests this season.

    One driver who perhaps could have used more practice time Friday is Jeff Gordon.

    Gordon admittedly is concerned coming into Saturday's race. He was horrible in both races at RIR last season, finishing 30th and 39th.

    Those poor results were compounded by what Gordon characterized as a "not so good" test session here last month.

    "We struggled at this race track last year and we struggled at the test here, too," Gordon said.

    But Gordon, who qualified 16th Friday night, is optimistic that his recent run of bad luck at RIR will be a thing of the past by the time the checkered flag falls Saturday night.

    "I was not really sure what we were going to have coming in here," the four-time Cup champ said. "I think we made gains based on what we learned from the test, even though it wasn't a good one, and the things we learned [Friday] and things really we've been learning in general week in and week out.

    "We're pretty decent right now and I'm happy and excited about that. I hope that we can maintain that the rest of the weekend."

    Apparently being limited to just one session is not as significant as one might think – provided Gordon has a good finish Saturday night, that is. If not, he could be rethinking his viewpoint.

    "Had we not tested here I think it would have been a little bit more difficult," Gordon said. "It's the same for everybody. Everybody has the same opportunity to go out there and adjust and make their cars faster.

    "You like it if you're running decent. You don't like it if you're not."

    May 5, 2006
    Junior at the movies
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. wears a lot of hats.

    He's a Nextel Cup driver, first and foremost, but also is a Busch Series team owner, a part-time Busch Series driver, and commercial pitchman extraordinaire.

    Now you can add movie critic to the mix.

    When asked his thoughts about the upcoming NASCAR-themed "Talladega Nights" movie starring Will Ferrell, due to be released in early August, Earnhardt morphed from race car driver to NASCAR's version of Roger Ebert.

    Here's Earnhardt's mini-review of what we can expect, and how the flick will impact NASCAR and the sport:

    "I think that the 'Talladega Nights' movie is going to be a lot of fun to watch," Earnhardt said. "I think it's going to be funny. I think it's good that NASCAR can sort of pick on itself, or at least allow somebody else to."

    That doesn't mean that the new flick will easily make its way on to Junior's list of favorite racing films.

    So which will make more money off Talladega?
    Would Ferrell be fined for swearing? (NASCAR)
    "I still watch 'Stroker Ace' at least once or twice a year," he said. "That's not a good racing movie, but it's just well-done in my opinion, really funny. I like 'The Last American Hero' – I thought that was probably the best one. The one from Le Mans is good [James Garner's 1966 classic 'Grand Prix'], too."

    Many wonder about the new film, speculating on what impact the expected send-up will have on people's perception of the sport. For Junior, any news is good news.

    "I think that it helps us," he said. "The only thing about it, though, is when you make a movie you sort of have to dramatize some of the stuff, but it still paints a decent picture of what the sport's like. Maybe some of the fans that are critical won't take it so seriously after a movie like 'Talladega Nights.' But any time there's any kind of documentary, any time a driver gets on MTV with a documentary, any time we do anything on CMT or any other shows like that, it's great."

    Earnhardt did not mention the one movie that many of today's NASCAR fans identify the most with the sport: Tom Cruise's 1990 film "Days of Thunder."

    Nor, for that matter, did Earnhardt talk about the unauthorized melodrama about his late father, the ESPN-produced "3."

    Even so, Junior deserves two thumbs up.

    April 30, 2006
    Wet home Alabama
    By Bob Margolis

    TALLADEGA, Ala. – It seems like only yesterday (actually it was 42 days ago) that I was watching raindrops fall at a race track.

    The last time around, it was a chilly Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It poured like cats and dogs, nearly flooding the entire infield. The Nextel Cup race was rescheduled for Monday morning.

    Sunday at Talladega, it was more like a persistent shower, the kind of rain both farmers and little old ladies with flower gardens love to see in April.

    April showers bring May flowers.

    Anyway, I learned my lesson from my experience in Atlanta and brought an extra day's worth of clothes. Never let it be said you can't teach this old dog a new trick or two.

    I felt bad for all of the fans who had to leave the track without seeing what I'm sure will be an awesome rescheduled race on Monday.

    Dude, that's a big umbrella.
    Fans (and cars) keep dry. (Getty)
    And even worse yet – how about all those unopened six packs of beer that never got a chance to see the light of day or be used to toast another 'Dega victory by Junior?

    Will Ferrell is a pretty funny guy. I really want his NASCAR movie to be funny, too.

    He was at the track on Sunday to promote the upcoming movie, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

    The trailer for the movie, which is available online at, is hilarious. It might just set back the stereotypes for NASCAR and its fans about 20 years, but that's probably OK. Most of my fellow media-types think it will disappear and go to DVD almost immediately, but I don't think so.

    I'm thinking that nearly half of NASCAR's 70 million or so fans will want to see it. Don't forget, much of NASCAR's fan base is made up of the same folks who appreciate the self-deprecating redneck humor of Blue Collar Comedy with comedians Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy.

    By the way, the "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector" feature film that appeared in theatres recently was quite funny and turned out to be a financial success.

    I'm betting that "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" will be, too.

    Ferrell's movie still will need to go a long way to be funnier than Burt Reynolds' classic NASCAR movie "Stroker Ace."

    Come to think of it, last time we had a rainout, there were Hollywood movie stars there, too.

    In Atlanta, comic actors David Spade, Jon Heder and Rob Schneider attended the race, and were grand marshals like Ferrell.

    I'm noticing a pattern here.

    Walking through the crowd behind the press box in the main grandstand during the rain delay was a real treat. I enjoy listening to NASCAR fans talk about racing. There is so much passion.

    Many were talking about Tony Stewart's spectacular stunt show routine that took place during the Busch race on Saturday. Others talked about how cool it would be for Junior to win in the black Monte Carlo.

    Still others talked about what a punk Kyle Busch was and that they hoped someone would "kick his punk ass."

    I wondered if 20 years ago fans were saying the same thing about Dale Earnhardt Sr. or maybe Darrell Waltrip.

    DW's got this aura about him now that paints him as Mr. Respectable, but older fans will remember that he was a punk in his day, too.

    Rain delays are a drag, but they are a part of NASCAR racing.

    Someone once told me that strange things usually happen during Monday races. The last time NASCAR raced on Monday, Kasey Kahne won the race and Bobby Labonte led several laps before his engine let go.

    I can think of many, many strange scenarios I'd like to see happen.

    I think I'd better just wait until Monday.

    April 29, 2006
    Small bump
    By Bob Margolis

    TALLADEGA, Ala. – OK guys, I get the hint. I guess you don't want to discuss it anymore

    Bump drafting.

    During the postrace press conference following Saturday's Aaron's 312 Busch race here at Talladega, I asked runner-up Kevin Harvick and third-place finisher Kyle Busch for comments about the bump drafting that took place during the race.

    "About normal," Harvick said.

    "Yeah, I agree with Kevin," Busch said. "It's about what you usually see out there."

    That was it. Nothing else.

    Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Say no more, say no more.

    Let's just see what happens on Sunday.

    Tony Stewart's wreck in the tri-oval during the race was one of those eerie deals that seemed to take place in slow motion. As his car became airborne, you really had to hold your breath until the car landed. As crazy as it sounds, once his Monte Carlo SS started sliding on its roof down the race track, you knew things were going to be OK.

    When asked what he was thinking as his car became airborne, Stewart said, "Well, this is going to be pretty spectacular."

    Stewart is flying.
    Stewart discovers the downside of 'Dega. (AP)
    It was, but Stewart emerged from his Chevy smiling. Obviously, it wasn't the first time Stewart had been upside down in a race car.

    Sometimes listening in on the conversations between a driver, his crew chief and spotter during a race can be extremely entertaining. The dialogue between race winner Martin Truex Jr. and his spotter made Saturday's show one of the more enjoyable race experiences I've had in years.

    Spotter Joey Meyers, who is also a pilot for DEI, was extraordinarily able to keep track of numerous cars at the same time. He spoke nearly non-stop from lap 48 until the end of the race, acting as an additional pair of eyes looking left, right and to the rear for Truex.

    During the final caution, there was a bit of an Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker exchange between Meyers and Truex.

    "It's all up to you, man. You need to use the Force," Meyers said. To which Truex replied, "Yeah, I know. That's OK. It's worked for me so far."

    The importance of a relationship between a driver and his spotter, especially at a track like Talladega, usually is overlooked, but it's a critical element in winning here – or at the very least, finishing.

    Qualifying at a restrictor plate track can be brutal. Watching a single car take two laps around the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway is about as exciting as … well, you get the idea. Cup qualifying took nearly three hours to complete on Saturday. Three hours.

    How about changing qualifying like this:

    On tracks longer than two miles in length, qualify cars in groups of 12 based on their practice speeds. Each car must run a minimum of four laps and a maximum of 12. The best lap scored is the driver's qualifying lap.

    Yeah, I know. It'll never happen. But drivers I've talked to like the idea and would be willing to give it a try. I guess when pigs fly …

    People were lined up 10-deep to get their hair made over at the Garnier Fructis booth in the midway behind the main grandstands at the track. I can only imagine what some of the old timers were saying having witnessed a beauty salon set up at a NASCAR track.

    It wasn't just about the hair, though.

    The midway area of the track was wall-to-wall people before the Busch race and for good reason – there were a lot of free samples being given away (not at the Crown Royal booth, of course!). A good deal of NASCAR's success has to do with the fact that sponsors not only put their name on the sides of race cars, but also activate their sponsorship with the fans.

    There's a large billboard in the infield of the track facing the main grandstands that promotes the upcoming Will Ferrell NASCAR-themed comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." The track also is selling merchandise promoting the movie.

    Of course, fans are buying the stuff.

    I admit that I laughed at the trailer for the movie, but I'm still not sure whether or not it will promote a positive or a negative image for NASCAR.

    One of the best lines of the day came from Elliott Sadler, who often is quite witty without realizing it.

    "Restrictor plate racing to me is still just tough racing," said Sadler. "We're all up on top of each other for 500 miles. It's hard for us to race like that. It's hard to ask 43 human beings to be perfect for three and a half hours."

    This was his first pole of the year, qualifying him for the 2007 Bud Shootout.

    As Truex crossed the start-finish line to take the checkered flag in the Busch race, crew chief Tony Eury Sr. got on the radio and told him, "The man would have been proud. This is a perfect tribute to the man."

    The man, of course, is Dale Sr., who would have been 55 years old Saturday.

    April 28, 2006
    'Dega days
    By Bob Margolis

    TALLADEGA, Ala. – There's no doubt in my mind that when the producers of the upcoming Will Ferrell movie came to Talladega last year to shoot scenes for the film, their experience here made them change the title of the movie from whatever it was originally to "Talladega Nights."

    Despite what others may say about other tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Talladega definitely is a one-of-a kind place. Pure NASCAR.

    A few things needed if you are planning to attend a NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway:

    1. Be sure to be driving a pickup – American-made is preferable, but it seems to be acceptable to have a Toyota or Nissan. But to be safe, a Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado or Dodge Ram should be your first choice. Also, the more monster truck-like suspension on the pickup, the better.

    2. Your pickup should include a gun rack.

    3. Make sure you are towing a trailer with your camping tent, cooking grill, several coolers and enough beer to fill one of the Great Lakes.

    4. If you don't have an Earnhardt bumper sticker for your pickup (either a No. 3 or No. 8 ), get one.

    5. Don't worry about buying your race tickets in advance – this place has dozens of ticket scalpers, more than any other track on the circuit.

    6. No Gordon, Stewart or Busch (Kurt or Kyle) flags, bumper stickers or banners are allowed on the grounds.

    Dale Jr. fans. There's a surprise.
    Fans at Talladega. (AP)
    Other nuggets from Talladega:

  • By Friday afternoon, the traffic already was a nightmarish mess. Talladega always is high on the list of tracks that have too much traffic for the surrounding roads. Typically, there still is bumper-to-bumper traffic leaving this place five hours after the checkers have flown.

  • Either Alabama law allows for open beverage containers in motor vehicles or there are a lot of folks here who are breaking the law.

    Nah, must be the former.

  • What's this I hear about soft bumpers? Either no one wanted to test them in practice Friday or it has become a non-issue.

  • The Talladega media center has some of the best-fed photographers on the circuit.

  • If you want to be able to stay in an upscale hotel and eat somewhere other than a fast food or chain restaurant while attending the race at Talladega, you need to stay in or around Birmingham, which is 45 minutes west of the track.

  • Matt Yocum from Fox Sports' television broadcast reminded me that he was part of the pit road crew for the Nashville Busch race broadcast on Easter weekend. I erroneously wrote in my "Observations" from that race that only Jeff Hammond worked pit road that day. Yocum had a good laugh about my error and told me that despite my oversight, he wasn't giving back his paycheck.

  • Robby Gordon told me that life was good and if it wasn't for a small bit of bad "Robby Gordon luck" he was having, life would be even better. Mechanical issues have put Gordon out very early in two of the last three races.

  • I lost track of how many drivers told me how easy it was to drive a race car around the high-banked, 2.66-mile Talladega track. Yeah, maybe easy for them!

  • Is there anything more boring than watching single-car qualifying at a restrictor plate track? I doubt it. Now, the racing – that's a whole different story. It's hold-your-breath-every-green-flag-lap kind of stuff.

    April 22, 2006
    Passing time
    By Jon Baum

    AVONDALE, Ariz. – With race weekend usually comes a series of relative oddities. Sometimes dramatic – especially at Vegas – sometimes subtle, but always present.

    There actually wasn't too much obvious wackiness taking place here at Phoenix on Friday or on Saturday morning and early afternoon as teams and officials prepared for that night's Subway Fresh 500, but there were a few notables:

  • Juice Newtown was scheduled to perform at the track Friday night after the Busch race. I say "scheduled" because she may indeed have performed, or maybe she didn't. I don't know. I didn't go. Ever since she decided to perform "Queen of Hearts" instead of "Angel of the Morning" on that sort of entertaining, sort of painful "Hit Me Baby One More Time" show, I've been off the Juice.

    Incidentally, the Greg Kihn band was impressive. On that show, I mean. He wasn't performing here, as far as I know. But that might have been fun.

  • Greg Biffle on Friday afternoon was presented with a personalized custom surfboard commemorating his Cup win at Fontana.

    No, you aren't incorrect in remembering that Matt Kenseth won at Fontana in February. Biffle's victory there came early in 2005. But a good surfboard custom job can't be rushed, apparently. And it was a pretty cool board.

    PIR and California Speedway have ties and are relatively close to each other geographically, helping to explain why the presentation happened here. Short of that, anyone else think it's odd to get a surfboard – celebrating a win from 14 months earlier – in the middle of the desert? Of course, those of you who have been to Fontana, Calif., know it wouldn't have done Biffle any good there, either.

    Wow, he's looking pale.
    This is Carl Edwards. (AP)
  • A guy leaning back in a golf cart could be heard saying this into his cell phone: "Mr. President, how you doin'?"

    I'm actually not positive that's exactly what he said. I might have misheard. But it's funnier if that's really what he was saying. Really, who could he have been talking to that he calls "Mr. President?"

  • The generator in Denny Hamlin's garage stall has a FedEx Racing logo with the following slogan: "Every day is race day."

    Really, that's not exactly true. Thankfully.

  • The return of the Mohawk. I've seen an inordinate number of them (the hairstyle, that is … if "style" is an appropriate description) this weekend at and around the track. Is the Mohawk the new mullet? Or is it just 1985 again?

    Actually, that would make sense – it'd explain Juice Newton being here.

    She performed at the "Oasis" area of PIR. Now had it been Oasis performing at the Juice Newton area of the track, I might have gone. Actually, probably not. Their whole "this is how the Beatles would have sounded today" shtick got really old.

  • There are a crazy number of tires here. Just insane. Everywhere. Not surprising in the least, as it's like this every race weekend. But still …

  • Victory lane here at Phoenix has cacti in it. If only Kenny Wallace was desert vegetation.

  • Want another example of the differences between the big teams and the small operations? On Saturday afternoon another media member witnessed Stanton Barrett Jr., wearing blue jeans and sneakers, placing sponsor decals on his No. 95 Chevy, which he qualified 35th. Yes, decaling the car himself. And we're usually impressed when a driver helps push the car back to the garage after qualifying.

    Barrett's crew was forced to work under a small tent because there aren't enough garage stalls for each team.

  • Easily topping the list of the bizarre was a fan shouting out to Carl Edwards, asking him to autograph his son's t-shirt. Problem is, it wasn't Carl Edwards. Rather, it was a member of Edwards' No. 99 team – who happens to be black.

    So does the kid now have a fake Carl Edwards signature on his back? "Nah, I signed my own name," the crewman said.

  • Arizona senators John Kyl and John McCain stopped by the media center before the race, with the latter serving as grand marshal for the race. McCain's goal for the day?

    "Try to get the words right and not drool when the television cameras are on me."

    Good strategy, especially for someone considering another run at the Oval Office.

    Kyl showed off his NASCAR chops with a solid analysis of race favorites, but he wouldn't reveal who his personal favorite driver is.

    "I've got my favorites just like everybody else, but I'm in politics," he said.

    Many media questions focused on energy and oil, some of which were related to NASCAR and the IRL. But one reporter somewhat jokingly posed a question to McCain, who has been at the front of the steroids in baseball issue, regarding whether Congress should get involved in policing rough driving in NASCAR.

    "This is a wonderful sport and I'd hate to see Congress screw it up," McCain said.

    April 21, 2006
    By Jon Baum

    AVONDALE, Ariz. – At each track there is an alleyway of sorts. More of an access road, really.

    It's where the cars roll from the garage to pit road, and on either side is some sort of barricade – sometimes jersey barriers, sometimes an underpass.

    Here at Phoenix, there are fences. And on the outside looking there are usually dozens of fans clamoring for a glimpse of their favorite driver, maybe a picture, and, for the lucky few, an autograph.

    NASCAR has long been known as a sport where its drivers are accessible, where fans can closely interact with their heroes – and villains, if they so choose. That reputation still is more or less deserved, though for various reasons it has become more difficult for fans to get up close and personal.

    For one, the drivers simply have less time to sign than they used to.

    "I think it's been true over the past several years," Bobby Labonte said while signing autographs after his qualifying run here Thursday. "You can probably ask Richard Petty that. There [used to be] a lot less people at the race tracks. Everything just compounds and there becomes less time for stuff like that."

    While Labonte did stop by the fences and sign a few autographs, a group of fans standing on pit road during qualifying had even more luck.

    Sign here and swear you will never use UPS.
    Hamlin signs at Martinsville. (AP)
    Those fans were fortunate enough to obtain passes that allow them to get a bit closer to the action. And for a little while, Labonte's No. 43 Dodge was among the top five qualified cars (he ultimately ended up 21st), meaning his crew had to wait with the car because the top five are subject to NASCAR inspection.

    While Labonte chatted with his crew, a fan called out in hopes of getting the driver's autograph. Labonte happily obliged and signed shirts, cards, pictures and the like. Shortly thereafter he could be seen joking around with members of Jeff Gordon's No. 24 crew and then later with his former No. 18 squad.

    It was evident that Labonte was in a pretty good mood. And for a fan, that can be the difference between getting an autograph and being shunned.

    "Yeah, pretty much so," Labonte said. "Sometimes you're in a better mood than other days. Depends on how you run."

    Rookie Clint Bowyer certainly was in a good mood Thursday, as his No. 07 Chevy spent some time in the top five before being knocked back to eighth on the grid. And Bowyer also took plenty of time to sign for fans.

    "That's part of it. That's what makes this sport so good, that the fans can come," Bowyer said. "It wasn't too many years ago that I was a fan. The fans can come, be close to a driver, they can talk to him and get an autograph. At a football game you don't even get within a hundred feet of them, so it's pretty good [here]."

    That Bowyer took the time to sign should be no surprise, according to some longtime fans.

    Scott Riordan has been coming to races here since 1997. On Thursday, he and fellow fan Rick Schuster were scouring the garage and pit areas in search of autographs, and Riordan had a white racing helmet which had 15 or 20 autographs on it, all obtained in the span of just a few hours.

    Riordan, who hails from Phoenix, knows it's guys like Bowyer who usually are more willing to spend time with fans.

    "The up and comers, it's easier because they need fans," said Riordan, donned in a Lowe's hat and fresh off getting Chad Knaus' autograph. (He says his favorite drivers are Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.) "The old ones, they just blow you off. Even today, I asked Tony [Stewart] for his autograph on my helmet and he said, 'That's what autograph sessions are for' and walked right by me."

    Bowyer is a rookie this year, but according to Riordan, the trend of younger drivers being accessible is not a new one.

    "Casey Mears is very [gracious]," he said. "Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne. They're all, 'Thank you for asking.' I mean Carl, when I first got his, I said, 'Thanks, Mr. Edwards.' He said, 'Don't call me Mr. Edwards, call me Carl. And you're welcome, thank you for asking.' So there are some that are up and comers, they want to get fans. And the people that have been in it a while don't care. It's almost like they have their fans, they don't care."

    Schuster, from nearby Tempe, Ariz., backs up Riordan's assessment, saying drivers such as Bowyer, Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle have been easy gets. But again, some of the more established veterans, well, not so much.

    "Some of the older guys, Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart, some of the guys who have been around the sport, they just act like they don't want to be bothered with people getting autographs," said Schuster, who named Michael Waltrip and Kenny Wallace as exceptions to the rule. "They just want to move on. I think they feel they have a large enough fan base that they don't need anymore."

    It hasn't always been that way.

    Schuster has been coming to PIR since 1989 and was a Dale Earnhardt fan. Was the sport's biggest star – probably at the time, possibly ever – difficult with fans?

    Not a chance.

    "I had no problem getting Dale Sr.'s autograph," said Schuster, who did add that he once obtained one at an off-track appearance where fans who weren't able to get inside were given pre-signed Earnhardt photos.

    And it's at those autograph sessions that the veterans such as Stewart might indeed be more accessible.

    "[Stewart] said, 'I was doing it last night,' and I said, 'Well I didn't know that,'" Riordan said. "That's all right, I got him for my kids before."

    Riordan and Schuster had plenty of success on Thursday despite Jamie McMurray refusing Riordan's request while I spoke with the two fans (though keep in mind this was still in the middle of Thursday's qualifying session). Much of their success has to do with the fact that they have hot passes which allow them greater access.

    Obtaining passes to be one of those fans on the outside of that fence looking in, well, just about any fan can get those for a price. But the hot passes, which were introduced several years ago to reduce the number of people in the garage and pits during on-track action, are by no means readily available to the general public.

    "[In the past] on Thursdays and Fridays there was hardly anyone out here," Schuster said. "It was so easy to get around. This sport has grown so much that it's quite a challenge to get in and get the proper credentials to get into the sport as much as you'd like to."

    Riordan and Schuster weren't exactly forthcoming about how they managed to obtain the hot passes ("We'd prefer not to say," Riordan said), but they know the passes make all the difference. Riordan has spent plenty of time on the other side of that fence, and his autograph-seeking efforts weren't nearly as fruitful.

    He said he'd get just "two or three [autographs]. They just walk by so fast."

    As Riordan and Schuster witnessed themselves, some drivers still just walk by fast, even when fans manage to make their way to the garage. But often, it's hard to blame them. After all, these drivers have many demands over a race weekend – even outside of their actual driving responsibilities.

    "If you love the sport, you want to try to get everything you can, but also realize that these guys have a job to do and you don't want to get in their way," Schuster said.

    The two fans weren't done looking for autographs as I walked away, though there was far less white space on that helmet than there had been when the day began.

    And lest you think autograph-seeking fans are selfish or just in the way, Riordan says he will donate either the helmet or some autographed cars for a charity auction a coworker of his is running to help fight child leukemia.

    I ran into Scott Riordan and Rick Schuster in the garage on Friday. The helmet was up to 35 signatures (36 if they were successful with their approach on Ken Schrader when I last saw them). Among those autographs now on the helmet? Stewart and McMurray.

    April 19, 2006
    Tomorrow's OK
    By Jon Baum

    There are fans – and certainly some drivers and others within NASCAR – that don't want to see the Car of Tomorrow in competition.

    A chief complaint is that the cars will not resemble their showroom counterparts closely enough.

    But is that even something today's Cup cars do?

    For better or worse, NASCAR really is no longer about the cars. Rather, it's about the stars.

    Honestly, in the waning laps of a race, what's the more intriguing matchup: Carl Edwards vs. Tony Stewart, or Ford vs. Chevy?

    This isn't to say that manufacturers don't still have fans – they absolutely do.

    But really, if all you care about are the cars, Stewart vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. Jeff Gordon is meaningless. After all, they all are bowtie men.

    The Car of Tomorrow could very well have an impact on the manufacturers, both in perception and bottom line. But considering the lack of interest and importance in the manufacturer battles, plus taking into account the many, many safety innovations being incorporated into the COT, isn't that tradeoff worth it?

    Really, it doesn't look that weird ... does it?
    The Car of Tomorrow. (NASCAR)
    Sure, there continue to be differences between the Chevys, Fords and Dodges both in look and performance, but those differences pale in comparison to those seen in the NASCAR of yesteryear. Should the COT design do all it can to maintain some sort of identity for each of the manufacturers? Absolutely. And should there still be enough potential setup and power differences to give Ford an edge at one track or Dodge a leg up at another? Why not?

    But that's where the manufacturer battle is more important – better performance in helping bring the sport's stars to victory lane.

    The COT might look odd compared to today's or even yesterday's Cup cars, but the names and faces still will be there. Could there be a day (again) when not all of the Big Three manufacturers participate in NASCAR? Sure.

    While that certainly wouldn't be ideal, losing a third of its biggest names would be the bigger loss for NASCAR.

    Some will like the COT, some will not. Either way, it is no reason to abandon the sport, not when all of its stars still will be racing.

    Still, for those clinging to a time when the cars were (nearly) everything, don't fret. The manufacturer battle gets a much-needed jolt of energy next season when Toyota enters the Cup fray.

    Toyota's entry is so polarizing that it should spur manufacturer-battle interest among fans despite, somewhat ironically, the COT possibly making the cars look more alike than ever.

    NASCAR is star-driven, but the personalities aren't limited to the drivers.

    Last week I wrote that the Nicole Lunders-Eva Bryan fiasco might be good for NASCAR because of the publicity it generates. And indeed, shoving matches, intentional wrecks, obscene gestures and profanities do often create buzz for NASCAR in the sports world.

    NASCAR often hands down penalties after such incidents, but is it right to do so? Not everyone agrees:

    Why doesn't NASCAR stop nitpicking at everything that a driver does off the track? Let them express their feelings. I am expecting NASCAR to dress each of the drivers in lace underwear and not allow them to drive over 55 mph on the track. While there should be some rules to keep things in check, there is such a thing as going overboard by the NASCAR officials.
    W.H. Morris, Loris, S.C.

    Personalities are a big part of this sport and all sports in general, and they should be allowed to shine through. Though as the previous email states, there do need to be some rules in place.

    It begs the question: How strict should those rules be?

    I never thought the day would come, but it has. After a lifetime of NASCAR, starting 30 years ago listening to the races with my dad on the radio, I am losing interest. I have tired of young bucks, with brash attitudes, and no old hands with influence. I am disappointed that the great drivers of the past are never mentioned, that NASCAR is embarrassed of its roots. I have had enough of "everything team" and no mention of the fact that IT'S THE DRIVER.

    As crazy as it sounds, I am fed up with safety to the point that we now have glorified bumper cars. I am tired of rules, equality of cars, backflips, flipping of the bird, Darrell Waltrip, Junior being a kid, and seat-warming old guys that never were and never will be.

    It's worn. It's pasteurized, it's boring, it's NASCAR, and it's sad.
    Bryan Sansom, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

    It's apparently a fine line when the attitudes are "brash" but the racing apparently is "worn" or "pasteurized" or "boring." Bryan's observations fit, to an extent, with the COT and personalities within NASCAR in that the sport is indeed more about its characters and, in some peoples' opinions, less about the competition. It also speaks to the sport becoming stricter and more vanilla in some respects while becoming more colorful off it.

    Really, the COT should make the racing closer and more competitive in some respects, but it's a very different kind of competition than what existed when manufacturer power played an even bigger role in separating race winners and also-rans.

    It's also a different time when what drivers say means almost as much as where they finish.

    No, personality doesn't win races, but it sure can make the sport a bit more interesting.

    April 15, 2006
    Lunders' blunder?
    By Jon Baum

    If there's one thing that was learned from last Sunday's Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, it's this: Don't mess with Nicole Lunders' man.

    That man, Greg Biffle, was taken out by former teammate Kurt Busch after the 16 car had led more than half of the race's first 82 laps. At that time, Busch no longer was on the lead lap.

    After the incident an angry Lunders stormed over to Busch's pit box where Busch's fiancée Eva Bryan was perched and let Bryan have it.

    (We're talking verbally, people. Easy now ...)

    Lunders eventually left that scene and was calmed down by another NASCAR girlfriend/wife (Katie Kenseth), but NASCAR announced days later that it was considering taking some sort of action against Lunders.

    But all this you already know.


    Well, Fox was all over it during the race telecast. But even for those who missed Sunday's show, the story has thrived on the wires and highlight shows, with ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," which doesn't exactly routinely spend extensive amounts of time talking NASCAR, dedicated a segment to the Lunders-Bryan spat as part of one night's "Sportscenter."

    (Incidentally, my favorite part of the incident was watching Busch's crew not really know what to do. If another driver or crew member had stormed into their pit box – which isn't uncommon – the No. 2 guys might have stepped in to break up a fight or diffuse a potentially ugly situation. Instead, most just sort of stood there and watched. Hilarious.)

    Sorry, I sort of destroyed your water bottle.
    Lunders stands by her man. (AP)
    Earlier this week I described the confrontation as "great stuff." I admit, that was from a very NASCAR-centric perspective in the near-immediate aftermath of the race.

    Since then, the "story" has grown and the audience changed. No longer is it just NASCAR fans – who perhaps were as amused as I was, or maybe many were enraged for being exposed to this – but rather the sports world in general, if not beyond.

    Within the NASCAR world, drivers, fans, officials and the media get fired up about issues like bump drafting. But other than experts trying to explain to anchors exactly what that means and how it happens, the general sports fan never will become engaged with that issue – except, maybe, when it's described as "one car intentionally slamming into another." That can turn heads.

    But NASCAR wives and/or girlfriends slamming water bottles and getting into shouting matches? Well that's a different story.

    It has become legend, the fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allisons at the 1979 Daytona 500. That incident was aired on CBS and is widely credited with helping to put NASCAR on the mainstream sports map.

    NASCAR has grown in leaps and bounds since then, especially over the last five or six years. Still, it seems it takes an off-kilter incident like the Lunders-Bryan non-fight to generate buzz – or at least a guy doing backflips or climbing a fence.

    In other words, while NASCAR arguably gets far more time on the highlight shows than it used to, the wacky element is sometimes what it takes for NASCAR to get moved anywhere near the front of the broadcast.

    This all begs the question: Is publicity generated from Nicole Lunders' temper good for NASCAR?

    PTI's Tony Kornheiser, for one, thinks it's great. He suggested, possibly partly in jest but seemingly not so much, that the women of NASCAR be "paraded around like llamas."

    (We assume he didn't mean Lorenzo Lamas.)

    There's that old saying, generally attributed to the marketing world, that states "Any publicity is good publicity."

    Basically, it's about the endgame.

    Some will see highlights of what happened at Texas (both the wrecks and the ensuing war of the words) and think, "Wow, this sport is cool."

    Others surely will think, "What a joke."

    But both groups might just watch the next race to see what happens. And that's the key.

    NASCAR generally puts on a good show, with some races, of course, being better than others. And if it takes a ridiculous yet surely entertaining incident to create a little more fan interest, so be it.

    We're not talking about NASCAR manufacturing incidents or "parading" anyone (though actual llamas might be interesting. In case you were wondering, which you weren't, llamas generally live roughly 20 years, give or take another five or so. Lorenzo Lamas, meanwhile, is 48). But that doesn't mean the sport can't take advantage when just a little bit more of the sports world is paying attention.

    So will Lunders feel NASCAR's wrath?

    "When altercations and things like that happen, we recommend that you stay in your own area,'' NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton told the AP. "You can go have a conversation, but it can't be heated per se.''

    It seems Nicole Lunders perhaps will get a talking to.

    Anything more would seem unfair, considering all the talking about NASCAR everyone is doing this week thanks to her.

    April 7, 2006
    Big Texas
    By Bob Margolis

    FORT WORTH, Texas – The saying goes, "Everything is bigger in Texas." I absolutely agree.

    And when it comes to race tracks in Texas you have to add the adjective "better" as well.

    Saying that Bruton Smith's Texas Motor Speedway is the crown jewel of the NASCAR tour is an understatement. This place almost seems like it was designed from wish lists drawn up by everyone involved with racing – fans, competitors and sponsors.

    The amenities at this facility include a fully equipped health club, an excellent restaurant, trackside condominiums and seating for more than 150,000. And the track Web site is one of the best.

    For the media, it's a real pleasure to work here. The infield media center is one of the largest on the circuit and there are separate areas for writers, photographers and team representatives – all under one roof. Like one big happy family.

    But as families go, sometimes there are disagreements.

    Like the one Tony Stewart had with a very well-known writer for about 10 minutes Friday afternoon, smack dab in the middle of the media center.

    I'm not sure exactly what the issue was, but I can tell you this: After watching Stewart give his in-your-face performance, I'm not sure I ever want to get on his bad side.

    Internationally known chef and Food Network fixture Mario Batali paid a visit to the track on Friday afternoon and offered up lunch to the media. It was incredible.

    They really just giving them away in Texas?
    Kahne's prize for winning the pole. (AP)
    We ate food prepared from recipes featured in a new NASCAR-themed cookbook that Batali has just written. He's not exactly someone you might think of as a typical NASCAR fan, but these days, what passes for a typical NASCAR fan isn't what it was just a couple of years ago.

    And you've got to like his trademark orange plastic clog shoes.

    At a press conference Friday marking the continued and expanded association between STP and Richard Petty and the No. 43 Dodge, marketing officials handed out souvenir autographed bottles of a new oil additive product to all those in attendance. Nice gesture. Problem is you can't take it with you on an airplane.

    After listening to Petty driver Bobby Labonte at the press conference, you just know that he's going to put the No. 43 back in victory lane before the end of the year. He starts 10th on Sunday.

    I will go on record at this point by saying that I really missed the boat with my preseason capsule on J.J. Yeley.

    I wrote last fall that by this point in the season, team principal J.D. Gibbs would be thinking about finding a replacement for Yeley due to what I speculated would be his poor early-season performance.

    Yeley has turned in several strong performances, including three top-20 finishes in the last four races – a very good showing for a rookie.

    Yeley, who admitted to me that he is doing his best to make me look like a real jackass, did so especially well Friday by nearly winning the pole for Sunday's race. He'll start second to Kasey Kahne.

    Jimmie Johnson unveiled a special paint scheme for the July 2 Pepsi 400 that features SeaWorld and Shamu the whale. Of course, that's now made him the favorite driver of every seven-year-old in the country.

    You always see a lot of Dale Earnhardt Jr. apparel at every NASCAR race, but here at Texas Motor Speedway Earnhardt red seems to be the color of choice. I would guess that nearly one out of four fans is wearing something red, something with Junior's name or something with the No. 8 on it. I wonder what beer they drink.

    On Friday mornings during NASCAR race weekends, series sponsor Nextel holds a media event aptly named "The Wake-Up Call," which features a 30-minute Q&A with a driver or team owner. This week's guest was new NASCAR team owner Troy Aikman, who with fellow former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach owns Hall of Fame Racing.

    I asked Aikman about his former team hiring talented but controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens, and whether as a team owner himself he would do the same when choosing a driver.

    Aikman said being extremely talented doesn't make up for an inability to interact with others, adding that he'd look for a team player first. But then he'd want someone who is aggressive and perhaps a bit controversial.

    He admitted that there is one driver who fits that description perfectly and that he admired him and would hire him, if he was available – Tony Stewart.

    Aikman comes across as an articulate and very knowledgeable spokesperson. He's done his homework and it shows.

    April 6, 2006
    NASCAR on trial?
    By Jon Baum

    NASCAR has a bone to pick with Stone Phillips and the rest of NBC's "Dateline" crew.

    It was reported this week that NASCAR is upset with NBC – which still, for the moment, is one of NASCAR's broadcast partners – for allegedly sending Muslim-looking men to a race with a camera crew to film fan reactions.

    NBC says it will be sending crews to various locations for its story on apparently growing anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, while NASCAR officials clearly believe NBC's actions were more about manufacturing a story than reporting one.

    "It is outrageous that a news organization of NBC's stature would stoop to the level of going out to create news instead of reporting news," NASCAR spokesperson Ramsey Poston told the Associated Press. "Any legitimate journalist in America should be embarrassed by this stunt."

    NBC defended its approach to the story.

    "It's very early on in our newsgathering process, but be assured we will be visiting a number of locations across the country and are confident that our reporting team is pursuing this story in a fair manner," an NBC statement read, according to AP.

    NASCAR fans
    Will fans "take the bait?" (AP)
    Regardless of whether one approves of NBC's approach to this story, picking NASCAR as a target when searching for racial, ethnic or religious intolerance isn't shocking by any stretch. After all, there surely are many out there that still think of NASCAR as being a redneck sport where diversity isn't welcome.

    Compared to NASCAR's past, that assertion is laughable.

    But compared to some other sports and society in general, maybe it's still a fair observation.

    NASCAR knows it still is sometimes burdened by those stereotypes, which likely is part of the reason it puts so much time and energy into its diversity efforts. It's also why Bill Lester becoming the first black driver to make a Cup start in nearly 20 years made such big news a few weeks back.

    But while NASCAR can push to make stock car racing in America more diverse, NASCAR can't necessarily control its fans – and it seems that's what NBC is interested in. What could be troubling for NASCAR is that it only takes a handful of fans voicing a distrust or dislike of Muslims or any other minority to make an outsider believe that theirs is the prevalent point of view within the sport.

    Maybe those people really would be representative of NASCAR's fan base. Or maybe they are fans who would be just as outspoken as supporters of the No. 8 are against the driver and fans of the No. 24.

    So while NBC may be putting NASCAR on trial, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps unfairly, NASCAR and its fans in the process are being presented with an opportunity to disprove those stereotypes – if indeed that can truthfully be done.

    NASCAR seems to think it can, as Poston asserted that the NBC contingent visited Martinsville and that "no one bothered them."

    "The obvious intent by NBC was to evoke reaction, and we are confident our fans won't take the bait," Poston told the AP.

    If they do take the bait, it will go a long way toward solidifying some outsiders' opinions of NASCAR as a redneck sport, leaving NASCAR with plenty more work to do.

    But if, as Poston suggests, the fans don't take the bait, it's NBC's responsibility to report it as such. And to make a big deal of it – at least as big a deal as would have been made if the fans behaved as NBC apparently expected them to.

    April 4, 2006
    Edwards' new number
    By Jon Baum

    Forget NASCAR. Carl Edwards is trying to conquer CTU.

    For anyone unfamiliar with "24" on Fox, Monday night's episode featured a cameo by Edwards.

    Actually, cameo is the wrong word, as Edwards wasn't appearing as himself. No, instead he played Jim Hill, who was part of a group of Homeland Security representatives taking over the Counter Terrorist Unit where Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland) works … some of the time.

    Edwards did a fine job uttering his two lines (and pointing at one character before shaking hands with another) as a character that wasn't necessarily integral to the storyline but did fit into that particular story arc. The existence of his character certainly wasn't out of place.

    But one thing was clear: had Edwards or someone like him not taken part, the character probably wouldn't have even been written into the show.

    In other words, it was some pseudo-cross promotion on Fox's part.

    (Incidentally, Edwards' scene wasn't missed due to Fox staying in commercial too long.)

    "Pseudo" because it wasn't a shameless plug for Fox's coverage of NASCAR, but rather more of an inside joke – and perhaps not the first one, as several seasons ago the Jack Bauer character went undercover under the name Jack Roush. Seriously.

    While NASCAR fans watching the show Monday certainly recognized Edwards – and likely knew the appearance was coming after Fox promoted it during this past weekend's coverage of the Martinsville race (they even had comments from Sutherland) – regular fans of the show who don't know NASCAR probably had no idea who that guy was.

    Nice job driving, but stay the hell off my show.
    Caan congratulates Johnson at Daytona. (AP)
    This is a bit unlike Jimmie Johnson's appearance on NBC's "Las Vegas" in February. Johnson played himself and had plenty of lines, and other characters spent a good deal of time talking about how much money Johnson makes as a NASCAR driver.

    The episode also featured shots of his No. 48 car on track.

    This was right before Daytona, so it's unclear whether the 48 was legal at that time.

    Speaking of Daytona, "Las Vegas" star James Caan was the grand marshal of that race, which, not coincidentally, was on NBC just a couple of weeks after Johnson's cameo.

    See how it all fits together?

    That's what makes Edwards' appearance on "24" all the more interesting. It could be argued that more NASCAR fans were introduced to "24" rather than the other way around. That's good news for the show (though I admit I was more excited about Kate Mara's presence).

    As for NASCAR, the fact that there are enough fans of the show in high places to pull off such inside jokes and put Edwards in an episode speaks volumes for the sport's increasing popularity and influence.

    Or maybe a producer of the show just wanted his autograph. Or, as Fox and Edwards joked this past weekend, for him to backflip into a fight with Jack Bauer.

    Maybe for the next cameo, Chad Knaus can show up in an episode of "Prison Break."

    March 31, 2006
    New lessons
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It's often said that the first couple of weeks of cancer treatment are the hardest. If that's the case, Bobby Hamilton appears to be weathering his battle with the disease quite well.

    Even though he's taken a leave of absence from driving in the Craftsman Truck Series for the remainder of the season to undergo treatment for head and neck cancer, Hamilton looked well and was in good spirits Friday at Martinsville Speedway.

    "You don't really know how much this has touched so many people around you," Hamilton told reporters. "You'd be surprised [at the number of] people in this garage area right now, family members or themselves, that have actually been through this.

    "Through all the emails and talking with other drivers and wives of other drivers, you can hear some pretty cool stories and some pretty sad stories, just dealing with it."

    It's also given Hamilton a much different perspective on life. Up to now, he's only heard about others being afflicted with the disease. But now that it has hit him directly, he's viewing life in a much different manner.

    Hamilton at Martinsville.
    Hamilton at Martinsville. (AP)
    "I'm going through this stuff and I go in every Monday and let them pour that crap into me," he said. "I feel like I'm pretty beat up at the time, and then look at a 17-year-old kid with a daughter in his hands, bald-headed, no hair, going through the same thing I'm going through. ... It just really gives you a reality check."

    Monday will mark the start of Hamilton's third week of treatment, but he's already showing that while it has sapped him physically, the malady is not interfering with his spirit.

    "In the first week, I just felt different," Hamilton said. "Everybody said, 'What do you mean different?' I said the only way I know how to explain it is I felt like I drank about five gallons of mud. It was right there in my stomach and I could taste it, like mud or cardboard – it was just there. But I felt fine."

    No sweat, Hamilton thought. He could handle things, no problem.

    Wrong. He suddenly felt like he'd been slammed into a wall at Daytona at full speed.

    "Being the arrogant guy that I am, I decided Monday after I got one [treatment] I was going to go to Kentucky to test one of my trucks because my other teams were going to do another test," he said. "I was running spring changes, changing gears, doing my own merry thing.

    "On Wednesday, I was walking up to the front of my shop and they had to call an ambulance. It just took all the steam out of me. They put stuff into this stuff that gives you energy to help you through the week, so I learned now that I've got to take it easy on myself and not burn the energy up."

    Dressed in a large floppy hat to protect the skin on his face and neck from sunlight, Hamilton was also on hand to announce a special fundraising event on May 23 at Concord Mills Mall in Concord, N.C.

    Dubbed "Craftsman for a Cure", the four-hour event will afford fans the opportunity to get autographs and even pay for the privilege to race go-karts against some of their favorite drivers. Proceeds will go to the American Cancer Society and Victory Junction Gang.

    "It's my way, or our way, of trying to help," Hamilton said.

    Among drivers already committed to attend the event – with others expected to be added in the next six weeks – are Hamilton, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Ken Schrader, Michael Waltrip, Todd Bodine, Ron Hornaday, David Starr, Dennis Setzer, David Reutimann and Ted Musgrave.

    "I don't care if you even mention BHR [Bobby Hamilton Racing]," Hamilton told reporters. "I just want to try to raise money for the American Cancer [Society] and also the Victory Junction Gang. Those are two great non-profit organizations. If you can twist these drivers arms and make them come to this thing, show me the love. Help us out."

    March 25, 2006
    Baby, it's cold outside
    By Bob Margolis

    BRISTOL, Tenn. – It's been snowing at Bristol.

    Yes, snow. As if the rain and cold weather on Friday just weren't enough.

    The snow started coming down at a fairly heavy pace just as Aaron Fike finished his qualifying run for the Busch race, which still is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

    There had been flurries most of the afternoon and during the qualifying attempts of the five drivers before Fike.

    Because every driver did not get to make an attempt to qualify (I've actually seen NASCAR get nearly all of the field qualified before canceling due to weather before), the field was set according to the rule book.

    Friday's canceled Cup qualifying left the field for Sunday's race to be set by last year's owner points because the rule that locks in the top 35 in owner points for every race doesn't take effect until after race number five: Bristol.

    Mother Nature even picks on the popular kids.
    Bud Ice? (AP)
    The rule is the same in the Busch Series, but they already have run five races (they raced in Mexico City during the off week in the Cup schedule), so the field has been set by this year's owner points.

    That put Kevin Harvick on the pole.

    It also allowed Mexican driver Jorge Goeters, who is driving Jay Robinson's No. 49 Ford, to start the race. Goeters struggled during practice and was only 42nd-fastest. This is a rare example of the weather helping a driver.

    The snow came down pretty heavy, with big, wet flakes for about 30 minutes, putting a coat of white on everything.

    It was quite the surreal scene.

    Some NASCAR officials were having a snowball fight on the backstretch pit road, while crew members took a welcome break to eat and tried to keep warm around anything that emitted some heat.

    The favorite spot to stand – if you were outside – was next to one of the team generators on pit road, which generate enormous amounts of heat – unwelcome during the summer, but an oasis from the cold Saturday.

    Someone with the track showed a sense of humor by playing Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" over the public address system.

    Even though the snow slowed things down, everyone still had a smile on their face in the garage. There's just something about snow falling that makes you feel like a little kid again.

    Saturday afternoon, the sun was shining again and the fans were still pouring into the track ready to watch some fast, fender-rubbing Busch Series racing.

    The temperature? It was a balmy 35 degrees.

    The weather held up and the Busch race started on time, but we watched a band of white approaching from the north around lap 30, and two laps later the race was red-flagged as the snow descended upon the speedway.

    When it came, it was an absolute white-out. We get them a lot in the Northeast, especially during blizzard conditions. It covered the entire race track in white and made for some real entertaining moments, as pit crews built snowmen and had snowball fights with the fans in the stands and with each other. There also was some wrestling and snow baseball.

    Watching the fans throw snowballs onto the track reminded me of the numerous times I've seen the same thing happen during an NFL game – especially in Cleveland or Denver.

    As the clock struck 4 p.m. ET, it remained to be seen whether the entire race would be run. Of course, this is the year they've extended the length of the race by 50 laps to 300.

    The race did indeed go the distance, with Kyle Busch – who was among those drivers tossing snowballs at the fans – winning the race.

    March 24, 2006
    Between the raindrops
    By Bob Margolis

    BRISTOL, Tenn. – The score now stands at Mother Nature 2, NASCAR 0.

    Not that it was a great surprise.

    When I looked out my hotel window in Bristol this morning at 7 a.m. and saw that it was snowing – big flakes, no less – I figured right then that we might not have much on-track activity today.

    Some genius I am.

    Of course, I might have jinxed the entire weekend by bringing my winter coat with me to the track.

    But the weather forecast earlier in the week did call for snow and cool – no, make that cold – temperatures, so I came prepared.

    Not only has it been wet all day, but the temperature has hovered in the upper 30s.

    Despite the conditions, work continued in the garage area, as both the Busch and Nextel Cup teams worked on getting their cars through technical inspection.

    Rain, schmain. Wimmer is in the Sunday show.
    Not a mirage. (AP)
    Among the downsides of a rainy day at Bristol is that you've got to navigate around the huge puddles, the sea of umbrellas and the cramped conditions in the infield garage area.

    The upside is that you can usually count on NASCAR officials to do their best to soothe the savage media beast by parading a number of drivers into the media center.

    Kevin Harvick and his rookie Busch Series driver Burney Lamar were first, followed by Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson. After lunch it was the Dales – Jarrett and Earnhardt Jr. Finally, it was local driver Danny O'Quinn, who is a rookie for Roush Racing in the Busch Series.

    Each had some very interesting things to say, especially Harvick and Jarrett.

    Both drivers talked candidly about their futures. Harvick, who already has announced that he's in the midst of negotiations about his future with team owner Richard Childress and others, admitted that he'll always drive for someone else while maintaining his own separate team.

    I asked him about the similarities between that philosophy and the philosophy of the driver he replaced at Childress, the late Dale Earnhardt. Harvick dismissed the thought, saying, "Not any disrespect or anything, but it's hard to beat down somebody else's path. We tried to structure everything and do things our own way."

    It may be his own way, but it's awfully similar to what Earnhardt did. And Harvick and wife Delana have put together a very successful organization with KHI.

    Come to think of it, KHI sounds kind of like DEI. Hmm …

    Despite the ugly weather, there were several hundred race fans that still braved the elements just to sit in the grandstands – in the rain – and watch teams work on their race cars under the cover of tarps on pit road. That is dedication.

    Just keep walking, yellow man.
    Dampening the day. (Photo: Bob Margolis)

    This place is magical.

    Bristol is a shrine to NASCAR. There is no other track like it on the circuit. It's really hard to describe what it's like here on race day with 160,000 race fans sitting in grandstands that tower 12 stories over the race track.

    Some drivers have described racing here as being like flying a jet fighter in a gymnasium. For the fans, it's like watching a race inside a football stadium (they used to play football in the infield here) accompanied by a non-stop cacophony of engines, rubbing fenders, tires screeching on the concrete track surface and the occasional roar of the crowd – which usually follows one of the multitude of wrecks.

    When you make your pilgrimage to Bristol (every true NASCAR fan has to at least once), you must have a meal at the Original Ridgewood Barbecue. It's located just off the beaten track, on a small country road just a few miles from the race track.

    It's one of those places that has pictures of country singers from the '60s and '70s on the wall along with a faded, framed copy of a story that People magazine did about the place several years ago. It looks like it hasn't changed in decades, but I was told they just went through a remodel.

    Nevertheless, you don't come for the ambience; you come for the food. It is, unequivocally, the best barbecue you'll ever eat. The baked beans are heavenly, the pork and beef are sliced paper thin (along with being perfectly cooked and seasoned) and the service is country-style and polite – with several "sugahs" and "honeys" thrown in for good measure.

    And they serve real Southern-style barbecue sauce here, something called Tennessee Sunshine, that's made from a vinegar base – not the sweet, brown syrupy stuff that usually passes for barbecue sauce.

    NASCAR officials made it official at 3:50 p.m. They pulled the plug on qualifying and told everyone to head home until Saturday, when everything will pick up where it never got started – weather permitting, of course.

    The Cup starting lineup was set by the top 35 in points from last season and the seven highest in points from this year – plus Terry Labonte, who gets the former champion's provisional.

    In other words, it allowed everyone that matters to start the race, including Robby Gordon – who is having an awesome season (19th in points) – Scott Riggs, Kevin Lepage and Travis Kvapil.

    I asked Kvapil's team owner Cal Wells about the challenges inherent with being a one-car team. He told me that they are huge, but he did admit that his group just needed to work harder and qualify on a regular basis. He gave Robby Gordon and Kevin Lepage's teams as examples of how a single-car team can make the show every week.

    Of course, now that NASCAR officials have called it a day, the sun is shining in the late afternoon. The weather forecast calls for more snow and cold temperatures on Saturday.

    March 21, 2006
    Lester's lead
    By Jon Baum

    Just in case you somehow hadn't heard, Bill Lester on Monday became the first black driver in roughly 20 years to start a Cup race.

    Making the show was the hard part, though Lester did a decent job of turning laps and staying out of trouble during the Atlanta race.

    Lester has said he wants to be known as a racer and that breaking down color barriers isn't really why he's driving fulltime in the Craftsman Truck Series and striving for a ride on the Cup side. But he does readily acknowledge and accept that what he's doing could make an impact on minority interest in and access to NASCAR.

    That's a positive.

    Still, there are some out there that believe way too much was made of Lester's Atlanta accomplishment.

    Why all the hoopla over Bill Lester, why can't he be just another driver? When a white guy gets in the NBA no fuss is made over him. The way announcers are carrying on over Lester is sickening. … If he can drive and win, fine, then he deserves all the hype. Until then, NO.
    Martin Smith
    Bitely, Mich.

    Hey, Steve Nash was the NBA's MVP last year! Anyway, Martin's argument that a driver should be judged on driving ability alone is fairly common, and it probably has some merit. In a perfect world.

    Yes, he was six laps down. No, that's not the point.
    Lester and his wife, postrace. (AP)
    But in the current NASCAR reality, a black driver making a Cup start for the first time in 20 years absolutely is a story.

    (And as some readers have pointed out, the fact that he "quit his day job" and followed his dream of racing in NASCAR – making it to Cup in his mid-40s – also makes for a nice story.)

    Would it have been a bigger deal had Lester pulled off a miracle and won the race or at least finished in the top 10? Of course.

    But he did qualify for the race on speed, essentially earning his spot in the field, proving that on this particular weekend, he deserved to be there.

    It's hard to say if NASCAR should be proud that Lester is doing what he's doing, or embarrassed that it took 20 years. Probably a little of both.

    NASCAR has done plenty in recent years to increase its efforts to attract minorities, but that's about providing opportunity, not necessarily talent. The latter, really, is completely out of NASCAR's control.

    People talk about the Tiger effect, that it will take a minority becoming one of the best in NASCAR to truly break down any barriers that might still exist. Tiger Woods' dominance hasn't quite opened the floodgates for black golfers in the PGA – but it still might. It takes time. And his success surely has increased minority interest in the sport, while efforts like the PGA/LPGA-run First Tee program try to provide more opportunities to more kids.

    Having someone like Tiger Woods to try to emulate surely is motivation for some. And again, many argue that is what NASCAR would need.

    Who knows, maybe Lester will end up driving a few years in Cup and will put together a decent career. Or maybe he'll only make a couple more starts and never will finish a race on the lead lap.

    No, Bill Lester very likely isn't Tiger Woods. And yes, the greater success he has, the more of impact he will have.

    As for those fans like Martin Smith who are concerned that there is too much hype around this issue, well, a black driver in NASCAR's top level will continue to be a story until, well, until it's not. We have our own country's history to blame/thank for that.

    Lester's efforts could energize minority fans, and his continued presence in Cup and the truck races could help spur greater interest in racing among young black kids.

    Nothing bad can come of Lester racing in NASCAR, though some would argue him embarrassing himself actually would be counterproductive. I'm not sure that's true, but even if it is, it's doubtful that after Monday's performance that would even be the case.

    Again, Lester's presence and accomplishments are all positive, for both himself and the sport. He'll help keep things moving in the right direction.

    As long as it's not another 20 years between races.

    March 19, 2006
    Don't mind the rain
    By Bob Margolis

    HAMPTON, Ga. – Wet race tracks and wet dogs have something in common.

    When they're wet, they test your love for them.

    I really didn't mind sitting around Sunday, watching it rain. After all, I had to be here. But at least they could have served us ice cream sundaes in the press box while we waited.

    For me, I've always found that it's best to err on the positive when it comes to weather affecting NASCAR events.

    I've been to NASCAR race days when you're driving to the race track through a pouring rain and by the time the green flag flies, the clouds have parted and the sun is shining.

    Not this day.

    Or are they secretly Dale Jarrett fans?
    Junior fans. Trying to keep dry. (AP)
    Someone said that if we could just get the cars on the track, the vortex effect of the cars speeding around would push the rain and the clouds away. I swear I've seen it happen before.

    Indeed, it was raining as I drove into Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday morning. Not heavy, mind you. Just one of those occasionally-flick-the-wipers types of rain.

    But as the morning progressed, the sprinkles became a bit more steady – just hard enough to force you to don a rain slicker.

    The showers did let up just enough for driver introductions, but soon afterward, as the drivers climbed into their race cars, it started raining harder and harder. And harder.

    It never stopped. It still hasn't.

    There's no place worse than a race track when it's raining.

    The fans scatter and huddle to any place that's dry, or better yet retreat to their cars in the parking lot. The drivers do an even more impressive disappearing act than usual at the track.

    I watched from the press box high above the track as NASCAR officials tried in vain to dry the racing surface. A convoy of vehicles kept circling around the track while jet dryers worked hard to keep ahead of the rain.

    The light-colored areas of the track, where the track was drying, became smaller and smaller, eventually giving way to a solid dark, shiny surface.

    When someone pointed out the puddles in the media parking lot, it became a bit more obvious that we wouldn't be seeing race cars on the track Sunday.

    NASCAR postponed the race until Monday morning at 11 a.m. ET. But the weather doesn't look like it will cooperate. Everyone is saying it will be Tuesday before the green and checkered flags fly.

    No matter. I'll be here when it does.

    It's a rainy night in Georgia and it feels like its raining all over the world.

    March 17, 2006
    Smiles, cheers and tears
    By Bob Margolis

    HAMPTON, Ga. – It was a very busy and emotion-filled Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

    The talk in the garage has been about the teams that are doing well and the teams that surprisingly are not. No one I talked to thinks that the names Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards will be missing from this year's Chase despite their relatively slow starts.

    At this point in the season, one good race can put a team back in the thick of things. As the season progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to make that big jump with just one race.

    With his third-place qualifying effort for Sunday's Golden Corral 500, Jeff Burton now is officially on a roll. He has two consecutive top-10 finishes and the entire RCR organization seems to have stepped up its game.

    Lows and highs: Bobby Hamilton shocked everyone with his announcement that he's battling neck cancer. He showed us all a very brave face, but there were times when it got very emotional during his press conference. This is, without a doubt, the toughest fight of his life.

    As Bill Lester walked into the media center after qualifying for the Cup race, he was met with a hearty round of applause – quite an unusual accolade from the media. It's not often you get to be a witness to history.

    Lester certainly isn't the first to accomplish what he's done, but with his talent, personality and the backing of corporate America, he'll blaze a more permanent path for others to follow.

    Really, what he did Friday is very cool.
    Lester in the spotlight. (AP)
    No matter where Lester finishes the race on Sunday, we're all winners in this one.

    A little bit of this, a little bit of that: I like Michael Waltrip's style. When he decided to expand his own race team, he chose a) a former Cup champion in Bill Elliott – who would guarantee a starting spot for his team – to drive his race car, b) Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS race cars "because that's the car to beat," c) Hendrick Motorsports engines and d) Burger King as a sponsor.

    Waltrip on Waltrip: "I'm like Switzerland, I can drive anything. Chevrolet is the car to beat. They've won two of the first three races. When we were planning this project, in order to lure Mr. Elliott, we wanted to get the best car he could drive. Right now that appears to be Chevrolet. I'll stay in a Dodge, I suppose, but I am going to be in a Toyota truck later this year, and I've got a call in to Ford."

    Racing on dirt: Several NASCAR drivers have strong ties with winged sprint cars. Among them is Dave Blaney, who currently owns a track that hosts races for the winged sprints; Stewart, also a track owner and a team owner; and Erin Crocker, who was the first woman to win a World of Outlaws race.

    Past World of Outlaws champion Blaney had some interesting things to say about the current state of his former racing series. He's not all that happy about the new National Sprint Tour, which was formed out of the ashes of the failed National Sprint League.

    He also feels that the show the winged cars puts on can be a bit boring, with little passing. Blaney would like to see them take off the wings and maybe put on some smaller tires.

    If you've never seen a race on dirt, you really don't know what you're missing. Although the cars are turning to the left, most of the time the steering wheel is turned to the right. Think about it.

    Stewart, who is a pretty good dirt racer himself, has said that he'd like to see the IROC cars compete on dirt and offered up his Eldora Speedway as the site for such a race. I'd like to see that one, too.

    Eating crow … or something like that: Every week Cup regular J.J. Yeley has been reminding me of what I wrote about him in my preseason capsule: "This may be a case of team owner J.D. Gibbs having to settle for what's available. It's a tough learning curve in Nextel Cup and Yeley will need to come to class prepared every weekend."

    Yeley sits 21st in points, quite respectable for a rookie. His performance at California, where he started fourth and finished eighth, was very impressive. He starts fifth on Sunday at a track that Mark Martin described earlier in the day as being "just fast enough to be scary."

    I may have to eat my words, or worse yet something else before the season is over.

    Come rain or come shine: There's some concern for the weather on Sunday (there's a forecast for rain showers). Halfway is 163 laps.

    I've learned to never trust the weather forecast, especially after the season finale weekend last November, when we all worried about a hurricane bearing down on the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The storm veered away and the race went on as planned.

    March 12, 2006
    Many moments
    By Jon Baum

    LAS VEGAS – Bumming around the track and garage prerace can be a worthwhile experience.

    There's usually an energy to it, and that was the case on this crisp, clear morning and early afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

    The last-minute team and track preparations and even the pomp and circumstance of the prerace ceremonies help to heighten anticipation of the "Gentlemen, start your engines" command and the green flag dropping.

    But for many, the anticipation began to build well before race morning.

    Much of the energy here is generated by the fans themselves, whether they be clamoring for photos or autographs in the garage, soaking up the ambience of pit road as the cars are lined up, or surrounding the stage by the start/finish line for driver and VIP introductions.

    Yahoo! Sports covers every Cup race throughout the season, so the scene is a familiar one, even for those who don't travel to all of the events. It becomes easy to overlook the fan frenzy.

    But for the most part, NASCAR fans at these races couldn't be more psyched to be here. After all, many bought tickets months ago and have been planning for this day ever since, with some making an entire vacation out of the trip.

    And they try to make the most of it.

    From taking pictures or video of themselves in front of their favorite cars and haulers to getting autographs from any drivers willing to take the time – adults and young kids alike could be seen bounding about after getting Kyle Petty's signature Sunday morning, while an adult woman was lamenting the fact she wasn't aggressive enough in pursuing Elliott Sadler – to a four- or five-year-old boy on his dad's shoulders shouting "hi" from outside the garage fence to anyone and everyone within earshot to fans in the infield listening to Robin Leach once again do driver introductions (he swung and missed on the pronunciation of J.J. Yeley's last name), it's clear fans don't want to miss even a moment.

    How rabid are these fans? They routinely crowded outside of the media center window to watch drivers during press conferences. Not exactly exciting stuff, but apparently still worth their time.

    What you see on television is just the race action (well, some of it, anyway). But that's just one part of the race experience.

    Did he sign the hat? We may never know.
    Junior signs for fans. (AP)
    Fans here at Vegas, they know this now.

    The prerace ceremonies did have some notable moments.

    First, let me make clear that this is a great race to attend and obviously a fun place to spend a weekend. LVMS is a solid facility, and the track puts tons of planning and resources into making it even better.

    But officials referred to Las Vegas as the "Motorsports capital of the world" during the ceremonies.

    Apparently, Indianapolis, Daytona, Le Mans, etc., weren't consulted.

    Shortly thereafter, the track's general manager referred to track owner Bruton Smith as being "the greatest visionary in the history of racing."

    Hey, Mr. Smith is a major player in NASCAR who has pushed the sport forward, but greatest visionary?

    Well, Las Vegas is all about excess, right?

    The prerace ceremony ended with Robin Leach telling fans, "You have five minutes to clear the track."

    I'm sure none of them ever expected to be following the orders of Robin Leach.

    Leach did some improvising during driver introductions, including when there was some uncertainly over whether Jeff Burton was to receive a contingency award.

    Apparently, he was, "but there's no one here to present it," said Leach, who also started a mini-conversation with Kahne during intros and said "We love you, we love you" to Vegas native Kyle Busch.

    All the while, scantily-clad showgirls and the guy with a foam dice-head watched nearby.

    A clear but windy day was expected for Sunday's race – and it's actually been warmer than predicted, though some clouds moved in around the start of the race – which was a vast improvement over Friday's conditions.

    There indeed were snowflakes falling on my windshield after leaving the track Friday night, and there were reports of flurries in Turns 3 and 4 early on Saturday.

    In the middle of the desert.

    It's not quite hell freezing over, but snow in Vegas in March might be as close as it gets. If hell has indeed frozen over, maybe this weekend would a good time to place a wager on Kirk Shelmerdine winning the Cup championship.

    Actually, maybe that explains his nifty performance at Daytona.

    March 11, 2006
    Tony and Ryan
    By Jon Baum

    LAS VEGAS – There always is much said and written about Tony Stewart. Is he truly more at ease and happier? Or has the cranky Tony returned this year? Is he still battling with the media, or would he rather joke around with them?

    The answer seems to be yes.

    Last year's kinder, gentler Stewart won the Cup championship. This year's aggressive, testy Stewart has gotten into on-track altercations and had a rough session or two with members of the media.

    So which version would we see here at Vegas this weekend?

    Some combination of the two, but certainly one heavily weighted to the happy side of Stewartville.

    He took plenty of time to talk with the media after his qualifying run on Friday. Of course, he had reason to be happy, as the speed he notched would be good enough to secure the outside pole for Sunday's race.

    But Stewart set the tone for the rest of the day with this exchange.

    Reporter: "You sucked the front valance off that automobile, but it looked real pretty. How did it feel?"

    Stewart: "Well, anytime you put 'suck' and 'pretty' in the same deal when you're talking about a Cup car, it's a pretty cool deal," he laughed.

    Stewart wasn't done.

    Because Busch practice was held shortly after Cup qualifying, it was some time before the top three qualifiers were brought into the media center.

    But when he did arrive, Stewart was asked to recount his day. So he proceeded to tell us all about it.

    The day according to Tony: He woke up, turned on his TV and then showered. Then he ate some breakfast – frosted flakes, with some vitamins. He then got in his car, fought traffic without angering anyone along the way and got to the track.

    It was then time for practice, qualifying, more practice, etc.

    And finally, he ended up sitting in front of us Friday evening in the media center.

    "I couldn't wait to get here," he said.

    Stewart can be sarcastic at times, but there's a usually discernable difference between when it's biting sarcasm and when it's all in fun.

    On Friday, Stewart was having fun.

    Again, it helped that he qualified so well. It also helped that he spent time talking about his efforts to build a playground for kids in Las Vegas – an effort in which he clearly takes much pride. It's also an effort, he says, that helps his bad days seem not so bad.

    And for him, this day wasn't so bad.

    Reporters routinely are asked to identify themselves before asking a question during the press conferences. One reporter started to say his name, but Stewart interrupted: "I know who you are. ... Go ahead."

    It was late, and this session – which featured Stewart laughing and frequently joking around with the PR rep running the press conference – didn't last long.

    As it wound down, Stewart displayed one more example of the happy, fun sarcasm.

    "Any time I can come here and be a part of this, it's great," he joked to close the session.

    It might be easy to be critical of Stewart when he does or says something controversial, inappropriate or borderline reckless.

    But it's also easy to enjoy Stewart when he's so clearly enjoying himself, both on and off the track.

    Cup practice sessions can be utterly fascinating, and they can be mundane. Driver takes car out, runs some laps, returns to garage. Crew makes adjustments, driver returns to track. Repeat several times until desired crispiness is reached.

    While it is repetitive, a practice session also is interesting in that it reveals how much a team can learn, how quickly it can learn it and how well it can make use of what it learned – all in the span of an hour or so.

    And over there is where I won the pole.
    Newman and Borland. (Getty Images)
    But Saturday morning's practice here at Las Vegas revealed a little more.

    Much is made – seemingly too much at times – about Ryan Newman having a degree in engineering. Many assumptions are strewn about regarding how much Newman works with crew chief Matt Borland to make the No. 12 Dodge better, perhaps making bigger non-driving related contributions than other Cup stars.

    Well, Newman's mechanical expertise came into play on Saturday after his car blew an engine early in the practice session.

    Many drivers might have sat back and watched while his crew frantically tried to replace a blown engine in time to get a few laps in with the new motor before practice ended, but Newman was right in the thick of things – literally getting his hands dirty – with his crew, helping them to prepare the new engine and hoist it into the car.

    There even were some crew members standing back and watching while Newman, Borland and Co. went to work. To be fair, there's only so much room around the engine to work, but the fact that Newman took one of those select spots is impressive. Newman also could be seen replacing hoses himself.

    For a few minutes there, he was just another member of the crew – but a savvy one, to be sure.

    But Newman clearly hadn't forgotten his day job. As soon as the engine was just about replaced and ready, Newman hopped back into his ride before the jacks were even down (meaning the car was on an angle, making it more of a challenge for Newman to hop in).

    Eventually he fired up the engine. After a few modifications, a shutdown and a re-fire, Newman made it out onto the track for the final 15 minutes of the practice session – key considering that would account for the only weekend shakedown the team would get with that motor before Sunday's race.

    Newman reportedly wasn't the happiest guy in the garage after the session – not surprising considering the engine change forces him to give up his 11th spot in the grid and drop to the back of the field for Sunday's race – but he did make it clear that a driver's contribution to a team can go far beyond what he does behind the wheel.

    And we haven't even mentioned Newman's moonlighting as a firefighter. He of many talents.

    March 11, 2006
    Bruton's bet
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    LAS VEGAS – He's the biggest gambler in NASCAR, yet you'll never find Bruton Smith hunched over a blackjack table or getting carpel tunnel playing the slots.

    What Smith does bet on is himself and his Speedway Motorsports Inc., particularly when it comes to trying to one-up NASCAR. When he's able to do that, he feels like he's hit the jackpot.

    That's why Friday's press conference here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway had to make one of its attendees, NASCAR president Mike Helton, a bit uncomfortable.

    Smith's announcement of plans to build a palatial $100 million, 10-story, 127-unit business/residential condominium building between Turns 1 and 2 at LVMS was nothing more than yet another veiled lobby to NASCAR to give the 1½-mile speedway a second Nextel Cup event.

    And while he doesn't have all the necessary legislative support he needs to break ground just yet, Smith pulled out a number of heavyweights, including Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, to throw support behind the condo – and the bigger prize of a second annual race in Vegas.

    When Smith built a similar condo building at Lowe's Motor Speedway several years ago, it was the butt of jokes, including a memorable one on David Letterman's show. But in the long run, it was nothing short of genius: the units originally sold for between $100,000 and $200,000, and some are now worth more than a million.

    Who plays him in the movie? Carl Reiner? Maybe Don Rickles? Perhaps Ed Asner?
    Bruton Smith – happy and motivated. (AP)
    Smith built similar buildings at his race tracks in Atlanta and Fort Worth, with similar results. But there is another similarity to note: Each of those tracks ultimately got a second event because the demand from both ticket holders and condo buyers was so strong.

    Could history repeat itself in this case? If enough deep-pocketed sponsors and corporate partners want a second race, how are Helton and NASCAR chairman Brian France going to deny them?

    I have to admit, the race track on one side and the famous Las Vegas Strip on the other end – not to mention mountains in the background and Nellis Air Force Base in the foreground – offer an incredible backdrop.

    The project will carry a hefty price tag, but money never has been an obstacle to Smith, whether it's for a fancy condo building or trying to lure a second race to Sin City.

    Even at 78, Smith is as spry as ever and as sharp as a tack.

    In a wide-ranging interview prior to Friday's announcement of his Trophy Towers, Smith was asked to comment on topics that produced some outstanding one-liners and punch lines.

  • On buying an existing speedway and moving one of its dates to Las Vegas: "I think what we need is to buy a speedway and I hope someday, somebody will give me a phone call. If they knock on the door, I'm going to answer the door. They know that I'm there, they know that I'm willing, and that we can write a check. That's what it takes, somebody to make that decision. ... [Buying another speedway is] always a possibility. We're not greedy. You know we're not greedy."

  • On his relationship with Brian France: "Brian and I, we're friends, and I enjoy working with Brian. I like what he's doing. We talk all the time. He's moving to Charlotte. That's good. Yes, he is. As a matter of fact, he said he's going to come over for coffee. So I'll be stocking up on coffee."

  • On whether he's in favor of holding a Nextel Cup event in Mexico: "First thing, I don't speak Spanish. I thought Taco Bell was a telephone company."

  • On the ongoing problems he and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. have had in trying to expand Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, Calif., and make sorely needed improvements to the existing infrastructure of the race track: "One of the guys who caused us a lot of problems, I think he committed suicide, so I don't think we have to worry about him."

  • On persisting rumors that the Nextel All-Star Challenge will be moved from Smith's Lowe's Motor Speedway in suburban Charlotte: "I've never had any doubts about that in the first place. [The media] shouldn't be writing that stuff about the All-Star race. Who said something about if it's not broke, don't fix it? That is the greatest all-star event in the entire country. We draw more people than all your other all-star events combined. Why would you mess with that?"

    "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?" Robin Leach may be more appropriate to host a new reality show called "Lifestyles of the Hefty and Used to be Famous."

    Leach showed up for Friday's announcement of the Trophy Towers, and had he not been introduced as among celebrities in attendance, most folks would have been hard-pressed to pick out Leach in the crowd. To say the least, time has not been kind to a guy who used to drip debonair, style and grace while decked out in a high-dollar tuxedo.

    Complete with Bluetooth wireless device in his left ear, it looked as if he had stumbled into the place by accident – and that once he realized it, probably wished he was somewhere else. After all, he didn't seem all that interested in the festivities going on at the nearby podium.

    Leach is expected to be among the public address announcers for Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at LVMS. At least we won't have to endure a repeat of last year's faux pas when Leach introduced veteran driver Morgan Shepherd as being behind the wheel of the Racing For Jesus Dodge – only Leach pronounced it as "Racing for hey-zoos."

    The reason there will be no repeat? Shepherd went home after failing to qualify Friday.

    Then again, maybe Leach will find another victim, like introducing Tony Stewart as the driver of the No. 20 Home De-Pot Chevy.

    March 10, 2006
    Cold as Sin
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    LAS VEGAS – There's no doubt the NASCAR Nation has invaded Sin City.

    Everywhere you turn, whether you're walking on The Strip or going from one casino to another, stock car racing fans were in abundant supply Thursday – with thousands more due in Friday and Saturday, all preparing for Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

    I thought Las Vegas was located in the desert, with mid-summer temperatures that routinely top 100 degrees. But you'd never know it by the weather forecast for this weekend.

    Can you say snow?

    Yep, that's what some local weather forecasters are predicting – albeit just a light dusting of the white stuff, if it even materializes at all.

    What will likely develop, however, are frigid temps, extremely gusty winds and the potential for a great deal of rain, rain and more rain. Right now, if forecasters are correct, Saturday's Busch Series race will be in danger of being totally washed out, and temperatures for Sunday's Cup event – if rain doesn't wash that out, as well – might just barely crack 50 degrees.

    Anyone sure that fan isn't also wax?
    Suppose cold weather is better for the wax Jeff
    Gordon found here in Las Vegas. (AP)
    Needless to say, stores were selling lots of heavier-style jackets and sweatshirts Thursday, and you better believe that trend will continue at the souvenir and merchandise trailers in and around the 1½-mile LVMS facility.

    Bad weather and the potential for a poor or delayed show is the last thing NASCAR needs after the attendance debacle at the last Cup event two weeks ago in nearby Fontana, Calif.

    There are supposed to be nearly 160,000 fans at Sunday's Cup race, but if forecasts remain as dire and gloomy as the skies are looking, lots of empty seats will result both at the track as well as in living rooms across the country.

    If necessary, NASCAR has provisions to run Sunday's race on Monday – provided things can't reach the halfway point on Sunday to make the event "official."

    My biggest concern, though, is not so much the snow or rain. It's the wind. With some gusts hitting 35 or 40 mph, the winds could wreak havoc on the track, particularly going into Turns 1 and 4 where cross-drafts are the strongest.

    Despite stock cars weighing 3,600 pounds, the winds could make tight racing and even drafting mandatory just so everyone can stay together in the same pack and cut wind resistance.

    Thursday night as I drove around town, the scene was almost reminiscent of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl. There was so much stuff swirling around, particularly in and around parks and ball fields. While shooting some pool at a place across from a huge park in south Las Vegas, I'd have sworn it really was snowing with the way things were swirling and moving through the air.

    At one point, I had to slow down because the lack of visibility on the street was making driving conditions a bit dicey – and this was practically in the middle of town!

    Although I didn't see any on Thursday – maybe it was too cold for them – at last year's race here, there were dozens of hawkers up and down the famous Strip passing out flyers and brochures touting some of the local, um, cultural activities. We're not talking art shows and museum displays, folks. Think of more, shall we say, adult things.

    But what struck me as ironic is that many of the hawkers and flyer-passer-outers were wearing various forms of NASCAR clothing while performing their job assignments. Seen were Dale Jr. T-shirts, Jeff Gordon jackets and even stuff from hometown boys Kurt and Kyle Busch.

    Well, with so many well-heeled racing fans coming to town, it's actually good business sense.

    There could very well be something that is even hotter and in more demand this weekend at the track: hot chocolate to keep folks warm. Track officials promise they're trucking in extra supplies, just in case.

    March 10, 2006
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    LAS VEGAS – For those critics who think Kurt Busch was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, think again.

    Busch knows what it's like to get down and dirty and in the mud. As a teenager he served as a sewer worker during his summers while attending Durango High School in Las Vegas.

    Yep, Busch wore a hard hat, donned a safety vest and carried a pipe wrench over his shoulder – and he didn't mind the hard work and sweat that came with repairing water mains or laying pipe for the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

    Working nights for the water district was a way to make ends meet while trying to make it as a race car driver.

    "Most of the time, I was the grunt with the shovel," said Busch, whose job title back then was Water Person/Distribution, Service Person Two.

    The part of the job Busch hated the most was knocking on people's doors and telling them he was shutting off their water service.

    Busch regaled reporters with those tales Thursday when he announced a new corporate partnership with Water Works Industry Solutions, a Las Vegas-based company. Busch will serve as a company spokesman and be one of the prime narrators on a series of 36 DVDs for those in the waterworks industry.

    "Here's a chance to show what I used to do," Busch said. "I used to wear an orange construction shirt, jump out in the streets and fix main breaks and do things in the heat of the battle, where you had pressure of water flowing out or research of the diagrams to shut it down or put a program together to fix a main break."

    Although the series is not intended for homeowners/weekend plumbers, Busch embraced the project not only because of his former job, but also because water supply and conservation in Las Vegas is very important to him.

    "I know from Las Vegas that water is a resource that is very hard to come by," Busch said. "So if we can save water while we're doing it, that's definitely the program that got me so excited about doing this."

    The image of Busch in a hardhat and slinging a pipe wrench like a pro is a bit hard to fathom. For whatever reason, it makes me want to think of Busch as a member of The Village People.

    But I guess the next time I need help on fixing a toilet or sink at my house, I'll be flushed with excitement knowing who will be the first guy I'll call for advice.

    March 2, 2006
    Tacos, tequila and Tracy
    By Bob Margolis

    MEXICO CITY – Day 3 of NASCAR in Mexico City and it is becoming obvious why tequila is the national drink of choice and tacos the national food.

    Let me explain.

    For starters, this city is the definition of a bustling metropolis. There are more people, more cars, more small winding streets and more unique beauty here than just about any other big city I've been to.

    Of course, trying to make your way from Point A to Point B is at times an adventure and in most cases a true test of patience.

    The food here is just sublime. If you think you've ever eaten a taco, forget it. You haven't. Unless, of course, you've eaten one here in Mexico City.

    One of the race officials took me to a small open air restaurant on the south side of the city called Don Tacos. This place not only serves the best tasting tacos you'll ever eat, but everything is freshly prepared right in front of you.

    This isn't your Taco Bell stuff, either, with cheese and lettuce. No, these are small, freshly-cooked corn tortillas you fill with meat and then squirt lime juice on. That's all. Lime juice. The flavor is in the meat filling.

    They also serve a sweet, milky drink with cinnamon that tastes a bit like liquid rice pudding.

    Didn't Richard Childress try this a few years back?
    Johnny Sauter's trailer in Mexico City. (Getty)
    As for the tequila, well, no explanation necessary.

    The Grand Am cars took to the track for the first time Thursday for two practice sessions.

    After the new Porsche-powered cars dominated the speed charts at the Rolex 24 in late January, everyone expected they'd do the same here. But after the first two sessions, it was two Lexus-powered cars and a Pontiac-powered one on top of the speed charts.

    That led to accusations by several drivers that the Porsche teams were sandbagging.

    I think they were, too.

    The only incident of the day was when veteran driver Paul Tracy hit the wall.

    I've always liked Tracy's style. To me, he's always been one of those drivers who constantly is running on the edge and if he wrecks his car, it's just the price to pay for running how he does. I like that.

    After he was wrecked out of last month's Daytona Busch race by John Andretti, he told the media that he's now been hit by every Andretti but Marco (Michael's son). He signed the damaged part of the race car "Courtesy of John Andretti."

    Joining the Grand Am Series this season and doing it very much under the radar is four-time Trans Am champion and Champ Car team owner Paul Gentilozzi, who told me that he chose the Grand Am cars because they're low-tech and the series has simple rules.

    During their first day on the track, Gentilozzi and teammate Tomy Drissi suffered through numerous mechanical gremlins – to be expected for a new team.

    The Busch cars are on the track on Friday and things start to ramp up big time.

    The atmosphere at the race track is unlike any other race venue we visit. You just know you're some place different.

    I like Mexico City a lot.

    March 1, 2006
    Road to Mexico
    By Bob Margolis

    MEXICO CITY – Saludos de Ciudad de Mexico.

    NASCAR calls this the "ultimate road trip." It most definitely is.

    First of all, I'd have to argue that bringing NASCAR to Mexico City last year was a good – no, make that great – move. On race day, the crowd was huge (estimated at near 100,000) and the racing was close, competitive and unpredictable, just like any NASCAR road course race in the States.

    I was looking forward to coming back this year.

    And it's good to be back.

    The flight from Charlotte was uneventful and I finally got a chance to see the movie "Walk the Line." Definitely a must-see.

    After landing, things immediately were different. For starters, all the construction at the Mexico City airport that last year made the main buildings look more like something out of a third world, post-apocalyptic movie set are gone. And unlike last year, it didn't take 20 minutes to figure out where to find your luggage.

    The ride from the airport to the hotel is always real entertainment. If you think you've seen traffic where you live, I suggest you pay a visit to Mexico City. There's bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go rush hour traffic. Except it's not rush hour, it's 1 p.m.!

    Apparently that whole rumor about the Chevy Nova not selling well in Mexico was made up. So they say.
    Stock cars in Mexico City. (AP)
    My van driver, whose just enough English matched my just enough Spanish, navigated the highway maze with ease, occasionally gesturing and uttering words aimed at other drivers that I suppose I'll use at some later time, when necessary.

    I discovered that commercial radio here in Mexico is just as pathetic as it is in the States – except nearly all the songs are in Spanish (of course). One song, though, was an unfamiliar pop song sung in English that contained a four-letter word, which was broadcast without censoring it. I suppose the program director assumed no one understood it. I did. It was strange to hear that word both in a pop song and on commercial radio.

    I've also discovered that we Americans drive some awfully BIG vehicles compared to what is driven here in Mexico. I've never seen so many small cars, and with nameplates unfamiliar to even an auto enthusiast like myself.

    There was the Nissan Plantina, the VW Pointer, the Chevy Astra (not a van, but a very tiny car), the Pontiac Moritz – which looked almost too tiny to be on a highway – and small cars from European makers that don't sell their cars in the U.S., like Renault, Alfa-Romeo and Peugeot.

    By the way, no one in Mexico wears a seat belt. Scary!

    I've now learned that the protocol for stopping at a stop sign in Mexico City is: a) approach the intersection, b) slow down, c) slowly creep into the middle of the intersection without actually coming to a stop. No one here stops at stop signs unless they're forced to by the opposing traffic. Very odd indeed.

    As you drive down the main highway from the airport to the part of town where our hotel is located, the view is a bizarre mix of colorful buildings, one on top of another, next to huge (and I mean HUGE) billboards selling just about everything you can imagine. They're much more attractive than anything you'll see in the States.

    Surrealistically placed on top of many of the apparently non-residential buildings are clotheslines with drying clothes.

    No Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore.

    Another thing that stands out is the sea of green and white Volkswagen Beetle taxis zipping in-and-out of the traffic. Not the new Beetle, mind you, but the old model that was so popular in the '60s. We've been told not to use them for transportation as they allegedly are notorious for ripping off foreigners.

    If you live in Southern California you're already accustomed to seeing the name, but for the rest of us, it still strikes you funny when you see the name Bimbo associated with baked goods. Here in Mexico, it is the most popular national brand.

    Funnier still was the name of the company whose billboards are everywhere advertising deli-sliced ham and other cold cuts. Its name? Fud.

    I once thought that Mexico City was a cross between Los Angeles and Miami. I've really got to rethink that. This place is unique unto itself. And NASCAR is smart for being here.

    Wednesday is a day to get up-close and personal with the locals.

    Consigamos este partido comenzado.

    February 28, 2006
    Tired of cheating
    By Jon Baum

    It's time to put a wrap, at least for now, on the cheating issue.

    Crime and punishment continues to be on the mind of many of our readers, as NASCAR's choices regarding whom to penalize and how severely have some NASCAR fans applauding while others scratch their heads.

    Jerry Bonkowski has written about the issue, and we've also covered it in this column. And while many believe penalties to Chad Knaus should have been extended to include his entire No. 48 team – including Daytona 500 winner and Fontana runner-up Jimmie Johnson – some others assert that the rules regarding car setups actually are too strict and that NASCAR needs to give crew chiefs some latitude.

    A small excerpt from one email we received:

    I believe NASCAR is too strict! Teams need to be allowed more freedom to compete. ... Is this competition or restriction? NASCAR plans to go to a one-car system. What the heck is that? Progress, competition and ingenuity will be lost.
    Robert E. Harner Jr.

    The tightening of rules regarding car setups and the increase in the number of templates used in inspection can speak to NASCAR's desire to level the playing field and, in a sense, control cost. But there is something to be said for allowing the crew chiefs more room to operate.

    I asked Dale Jarrett whether he thought building in more gray area would help.

    It's Hermie Sadler's Daytona 500 car. You're welcome.
    NASCAR officials using a roof template
    during inspection. (AP)
    "It certainly would if we didn't have as many templates," he said. "But the reason there are more templates is because these guys in this garage area are smart. They're extremely innovative and very smart."

    Jarrett says that NASCAR couldn't hire enough people to keep up with what the teams were doing, so they strengthened the rules to help with that effort.

    "Obviously they still have a hard time at that," he said.

    While NASCAR could loosen things up, Jarrett asserts the various templates help NASCAR maintain control.

    "The reason the template came was to keep the manufacturers from building a new car every two years," he said. "Aerodynamically, [NASCAR] tried to equal things up as mush as possible to make their job [of keeping up with the new cars] a little easier."

    As for the cheating issue, the less information the better for Jarrett.

    "Ninety-five percent of the time [drivers] have no idea that anything has been done like that," he told a group of reporters. "But I do expect [my crew chief] to take it right to the limit."

    Still, many want tougher penalties for cheating.

    As for fines, that's chump change to these teams. They need to suspend teams for cheating. First time caught cheating means 30 days suspension for the team, and that's everybody who has anything to do with the team: changers, crew chiefs, drivers and owners. ... Second time it's a year suspension for everybody. That ought to take some starch out of their shorts. If they come back after a year and get caught again, permanent ban.
    Scott Thornberry
    Lewiston, Idaho

    Well, Scott, you would think that type of stance certainly would put a stop to cheating altogether. But is such a strong stance necessary?

    Jarrett provided an interesting perspective, pointing out that cheating happens all the time in other sports, and that teams/players are penalized and then everyone moves on.

    "In football there's holding. What do they think that is? That's cheating," he said. "If you knock the receiver down, that's cheating so you get a penalty. That's no different than what we're doing here. In basketball, if you foul a guy that's going in for a layup, that's cheating. It's just looked at a little differently because here it's bending the rules."

    In other sports, penalties aren't increased for repeat offenders – unless the infraction has to do with something like steroid use. Otherwise, offensive holding is 10 yards every time.

    In terms of weeks suspended for crew chiefs, NASCAR does appear to up the ante a little on many occasions. But based on Jarrett's argument, perhaps even that isn't necessary – unless, of course, you equate an illegal carburetor in NASCAR with a steroid-like infraction in other sports ... and that argument can be made.

    Otherwise, create a standard penalty for a particular offense, assess that penalty when the rule is broken and move on.

    February 27, 2006
    Cherry on top
    By Jon Baum

    FONTANA, Calif. – Being in a jovial mood isn't hard after finishing strong in a 500-mile Cup race.

    Such was the case for Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards – who finished second and third, respectively – following Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

    For Johnson, the reasons for his joy are obvious. Coming off a Daytona 500 victory, he was decent most of the day and came on strong late to collect yet another good finish without suspended crew chief Chad Knaus.

    As for Edwards, a third-place run at California was just what he needed after he got caught up in a wreck at Daytona and was scored with a last-place finish.

    While the two did plenty of talking about their good days and strong cars, the highlights of that part of the postrace press conference came in the interactions between the two.

    After Johnson answered a question about his team finding success with interim crew chief Darian Grubb – Johnson joked that Grubb should just retire, with Daytona 500 victory in hand, after his four-race stint is up – Edwards jumped in with a question of his own.

    "Did something happen with Chad?" Edwards asked Johnson. "Is he not here?"

    Just about everyone in the room laughed. And it wouldn't be the last time that happened.

    After Johnson answered several consecutive queries from the media, one question was directed at either driver. Johnson paused, allowing Edwards to be the first to field.

    Don't think that's the funny face ... unless they just are both really easily amused.
    The Kenseths. (AP)
    "Nice of you to let me answer a question," Edwards said.

    Another question directed to both of them followed, as did another moment of uncertainty surrounding who would speak first. Johnson tried to wait for Edwards, but the Roush driver deferred to his Hendrick counterpart.

    "I wanted you to answer a question," Johnson said to Edwards.

    "You're the points leader, buddy," Edwards replied. "It's your responsibility."

    And so the back and forth continued, and the mood remained light. Johnson clearly was enjoying himself, even when both drivers were at a loss for words when asked why Hendrick and Roush traditionally are so good here at Fontana.

    First, silence. Then Johnson chimed in.

    "Give me a minute [to think of an answer]. … I'll tell you a story," he said. "Just hold on."

    Both drivers did eventually answer the question, which led to one more exchange.

    "Thanks for helping," Johnson said.

    "Yeah, I appreciate it," Edwards answered. "I mean, you're welcome."

    Not to be outdone was race winner Matt Kenseth, who got a "the winner, ladies and gentlemen" introduction from Johnson when he walked in.

    While being asked a relatively lengthy question, Kenseth could be seen laughing, whispering to crew chief Robbie Reiser and pointing toward the back wall.

    We soon found out why when it came time for him to answer the question.

    "I really wasn't paying attention to your question," Kenseth replied to the reporter, who had his question piped in from the press box and actually wasn't even in the room to enjoy the theatrics. "I was looking at my wife in the back of the room. She was making funny faces. … It's easy to [be distracted by her]. She's pretty cute."

    Everyone turned around. Katie Kenseth was laughing.

    But no longer was she making a funny face. We'll just have to trust Matt on that one.

    February 26, 2006
    Star silence
    By Jon Baum

    FONTANA, Calf. – When NASCAR comes to California Speedway, some familiar faces from the entertainment industry typically can be seen in the garage.

    On Sunday morning before the race, that group included (but wasn't limited to) singers Jewel and Fantasia (the latter from "American Idol"), actresses Hilary and Haylie Duff, actor David Boreanaz, some singer's soon-to-be ex Nick Lachey, and actors James Morrison, Glenn Morshower and Roger R. Cross (all of "24").

    Jewel and the Sisters Duff were made available at prerace press conferences, as all three participated in race-related activities (Jewel performed and rode in a parade lap, Hilary was the honorary starter and Haylie an honorary official). The press took many photos – especially of the Duffs, who walked in holding hands and often looked at each other while answering questions as if to seek approval from the other – but asked relatively few questions of the entertainers.

    Haylie and Hilary Duff.
    (Getty Images)
    Despite the fact that she was fairly conversational – except when asked about the upcoming album and single she was promoting; at that point she admitted to being shy and didn't really give much of an answer – Jewel's Q&A session lasted just three minutes.

    The Duffs' session went a couple of minutes longer – "I would love to do a racing movie, said Hilary Duff, who admitted she likes to drive fast but also that she's not a good driver. "I just want an excuse to drive [a stock car]." – but it was clear that on some level many of the NASCAR beat reporters either had little interest or possibly just didn't know what to ask.

    This is not the case when some current or former athletes make their way to the interview room. The likes of former NFL stars Troy Aikman (a new team owner who also was here Sunday) and Tim Brown (who was here last year announcing plans for his own team) garner plenty of attention and questions.

    But none of them hold a candle to John Travolta.

    When the star of "Saturday Night Fever," "Pulp Fiction" and the mega-hit "Battlefield Earth" was the grand marshal at Daytona in 2003, the media center was packed, as he and the lovely Kelly Preston were peppered non-stop with questions and photos.

    To be fair, Travolta arguably has (or had, at the time) a bigger name than those who took part in Sunday's festivities here at California Speedway. But it's not surprising that a guy like him would speak more to NASCARLand than the Hilary Duffs of the world, as personable as they might be (Hilary seems perfectly pleasant to me, Lindsay …).

    Heck, even Alice Cooper – who also was down at Daytona a few years back – drew more of a crowd.

    (It also allowed me the opportunity to ask Richard Petty whether he's an Alice Cooper fan. He's not.)

    One reporter did tell the sisters that his granddaughter is a fan. That same reporter also asked a couple of good questions. There also were the standard inquiries about whether they already were race fans and what they thought of the sport (the answers given by Jewel and the siblings mostly were pretty good), and Jewel also did some comparing and contrasting between professional bull riding (her boyfriend rides) and NASCAR.

    NASCAR races for so long ...
    Jewel with the cool Nextel thingy.
    (Getty Images)
    But then came the awkward silences.

    The fact that the Jewels and pop starlets of the world are even here is another sign of NASCAR's push into the mainstream.

    But the fact that despite some in the garage angling to have photos taken with the singers/actresses, many here simply didn't know (or didn't care) what to ask is another sign that NASCAR hasn't fully penetrated that mainstream.

    Or maybe it's just a sign that Haylie Duff hasn't quite made a name for herself in the NASCAR world. One or the other.

    Fantasia sang the national anthem before the race, and it didn't take long for some of our readers to email their complaints about her version. I actually thought she took relatively few liberties compared to many of the versions we hear throughout the year.

    Personally, I've never been too crazy about her voice. It's not that she can't sing – she can. But her actual tonal quality seems a little tinny and grating.

    For whatever that's worth. Probably very little.

  • Yahoo! Sports NASCAR reporter Bob Margolis mentioned this earlier this week, but Nextel's new FanView handheld device is very cool. We've been playing with them in the media center. Fans, next time you are at the track, check these things out.

  • Everyone talks about how good they are in clean air. Is there anybody who isn't? Are there cars that thrive in dirty air?

  • I like the two-mile tracks, but was NASCAR better-served when Rockingham hosted the race after the 500?

  • A fan (mostly-jokingly) asked me if I was Dale Earnhardt Jr. I was wearing a red shirt, though the "Yahoo! Sports" logo didn't look much like "Budweiser."

    Also, Junior's taller than I am. And, presumably, a much better driver. broken and move on.

    February 26, 2006
    The glove fits
    By Jon Baum

    FONTANA, Calif. – Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards were perfectly fine and talkative during their postrace press conference following Saturday's Busch Series battle here at California Speedway.

    The second- and third-place finishers answered questions about their cars, about working with their crew chiefs, about what they gleaned from Saturday's race for potential use on Sunday.

    They talked about not wanting to be known as Nextel Cup drivers, but rather just as race car drivers. Edwards even commented that if they ran a dirt track race with these Cup and Busch weekends that he and Newman probably both would be entered.

    Now, drivers sometimes clearly are not up for these sessions. They are tired, they want to get out of here. Most usually are good sports, and both Newman and Edwards seemingly were pleasant enough.

    But what made them the most animated and conversational during the press conference was something that would have made Johnnie Cochran proud.

    The renegade glove.

    Smoking. Still allowed outdoors in California.
    Biffle burns out.
    A late caution during the race – which was won by Greg Biffle, marking the new Ford Fusion's first NASCAR victory – came out when a driver apparently threw one of his gloves out of his window and on to the track. NASCAR reportedly took the glove back to the garage.

    When asked about the glove, Newman and Edwards began to speculate about what it was and where it might have come from.

    "I thought it was a wrist band."

    "I saw it. I thought it had come from the crowd."

    "Did they know it was a glove before they threw the caution?"

    "I just wished he had thrown the other one a few laps later."

    Another caution would have given Edwards, who gave up track position, a better chance to chase down Newman and Biffle.

    As for Biffle's take on the glove?

    "They should stop everybody on pit road to make sure they have two gloves," he said. "I've got both of mine."

    When asked if he would ever throw equipment, Biffle said that although there have been times he's wanted to he never would. He then referenced "My Name is Earl" and talked about karma.

    Then it was back to talking about Ford dominance, aerodynamics, Roush Racing.

    The usual fare.

    But for a few entertaining and almost surreal minutes there, the glove did fit.

    Watching the race from the pits is a different experience, especially when the large Nextel Vision display which shows the action to the crowd isn't in your line of sight.

    One sequence:

    Newman leads off a restart. The cars disappear for about 40 seconds. You watch the pit crews watch the race. (Incidentally, seeing a pit stop from just 10 or 15 feet away is wild.)

    The roar grows, the cars come back by the start-finish line. Biffle is working on Newman for the lead.

    The cars disappear again. You watch fans and friends of team members with pit passes milling about. You notice how many people in the pits are wearing ear plugs. And being a fan of The Who and Pete Townshend, you wonder why you aren't following suit.

    The cars come back. Somewhere on this two-mile track Biffle apparently took the lead. Newman is in second.

    You might have known about the lead change had it not been so loud that you couldn't hear the play-by-play.

    The cars come back around again. Biffle has extended his lead as the field continues to spread out.

    Eventually, the cars will be so spaced out that the deafening roar, while slightly lower on the decibel meter, becomes almost constant.

    It will remain that way until another caution (perhaps for a glove?) finally flies.

    February 24, 2006
    False calm
    By Jon Baum

    FONTANA, Calif. – Call Fontana the calm after the storm … or the calm very much before it.

    Walking around the garage area here at California Speedway on Friday, it seemed like a typical race weekend. Teams were working on their cars, fans were jockeying for pictures and autographs, track officials were violently blowing their whistles every time a car came whizzing around the corner in the general direction of where some fan might be walking – you'd be surprised how often fans nearly get hit by stock cars, work carts, SUVs, even fire trucks – and the aromatic combination of gasoline, oil and barbeque continued to mess with the senses.

    (It's confusing when the lovely scent of oil slicks begins to make one yearn for ribs. It's also confusing that a decent number of people – including fans and crew members – actually smoke cigarettes in the garage area. That's probably not a hazard … right?)

    And while there was as much commotion here on this day as there typically is two days before a race – it perhaps was even busier than select other races in the most remote locales – it doesn't quite compare to the madness usually seen at the season-opening Daytona 500.

    Yet even the atmosphere at the 500 was a notch or two lower than its previous heights – at least according to our NASCAR columnist Jerry Bonkowski, who described this year's Daytona kickoff as being relatively calm, even more so than last year.

    What is he holding?
    David Stremme. Calm.
    (Getty Images)
    Sure, the season starts with its biggest race, but the frenetic garage atmosphere, according to Jerry, is saved for the final 10 or 12 races of the year: the Chase and the races immediately preceding it. And indeed, last year's Chase kickoff at New Hampshire was pretty wild.

    Drivers welcome the chance to get back to "normal" racing now that Daytona is in the rearview mirror. And while the intensity in the garage may have waned accordingly, the on-track action should be even more intense.

    Once again, thanks to the Chase.

    When asked about the on-track intensity at Daytona and whether he expected it to let up now that Nextel Cup is at Fontana, Dale Jarrett said that because of the Chase, drivers have learned that it's necessary to fight for every point and every position.

    In other words, the answer to the question is no.

    Jarrett told us he thought drivers were patient enough during the first 400 or so miles of the Daytona 500 before the aggression eventually escalated. Of course, Jarrett is one of those guys who intentionally lays back during a restrictor plate race to avoid trouble before trying to make his way to the front toward the end. That's not so easy to accomplish at tracks like California Speedway, as Joe Nemechek says even a good car might have trouble getting to the front if it somehow is shuffled to the back of the field.

    When the Chase was first implemented, many drivers claimed they'd just go about their business and let the chips fall where they may. Now, after two seasons of the "playoff" system, it's clear some additional strategy, and aggression, is necessary.

    So while a Cup qualifying Friday afternoon in the garage at Fontana might seem calm, like business as usual, it's really a deception.

    For while most of the season might seem like a relative calm compared to the Chase storm, there will at least be a moderate downpour of intensity each weekend throughout the season.

    Daytona was intense. Jarrett says he can't imagine it calming down.

    Buckle up.

    Late in Friday night's Craftsman Truck race, crew members were standing on their pit walls, clapping and cheering for their drivers.

    But as fast as these trucks are going, can the driver even see his crew and appreciate the enthusiasm?

    I interrupted one crew member's long effort to jam a ladder back into his team's pit box and asked him as much.

    "He knows what we're doing," said the crew member. "He watches us."

    This particular crew didn't belong to race-winner Mark Martin or runner-up Todd Bodine. Rather, these guys were pulling for their driver as he fought just to break into the top 10 as the race ended. These same guys also cringed as a truck well behind theirs crashed as the race ended.

    Don't think for a second that there's no early-season intensity. There's plenty – even in the Craftsman Trucks, a series without a Chase.

    As I walked away, the crew members were still battling with that ladder.

    February 22, 2006
    Popular opinion
    By Jon Baum

    It's been a hectic week in NASCARLand.

    Many fans continue to cry foul over Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 win, some can't believe Tony Stewart's driving didn't earn him more significant penalties, and Chad Knaus' punishment leaves some a bit baffled.

    Oh, and then there are Johnson and Ryan Newman, who continue to take shots at each other through the media.

    Welcome to the 2006 season.

    The mail has been flowing in since the checkered flag dropped at Daytona on Sunday. Here are just a few of the hundreds of emails we've received.

    What the heck is wrong with NASCAR? They docked 25 points from Hall of Fame Racing for its infraction but only suspended and fined Chad Knaus, who has pushed the envelope continuously? The Lowe's team should be docked points as well. That, my friend, sends a message!
    Steve Holloway
    Hinesville, Ga.

    Steve brings up another popular topic. Terry Labonte was docked 25 driver points and HOF Racing 25 owner points for an illegal carburetor found during qualifying (crew chief Phillipe Lopez also was fined $25,000 for the infraction). Many fans are upset that Labonte and Co. lost points while the setup crime committed by Knaus, who was suspended for four races and put on probation, apparently didn't merit a points deduction for Johnson or Hendrick Motorsports.

    Without knowing the full extent of the missteps attached to both HOF and Knaus – though there is unsubstantiated speculation out there as to what was wrong with the carburetor – we must assume that NASCAR decided Lopez's actions were outlandish enough to earn a points deduction for the team (though Joe Gibbs Racing, which supplies many of the parts for HOF, took responsibility for the bad carburetor). Knaus' penalty, meanwhile, of a suspension but no lost points perhaps can be interpreted as NASCAR cracking down on a repeat offender with a strong personal penalty while also saying the team itself, outside of Knaus' actions, wasn't horribly at fault.

    Just a theory. Could be accurate, could be way off.

    But the other interesting element of this is that nobody seems to care that Labonte was allowed to race. While many are up in arms over Johnson having been allowed to compete on Sunday, almost all of those complaints came in after he won the Daytona 500. Had Johnson finished 17th (Labonte's final position), it's hard to imagine many people caring that he was allowed to compete

    Shouldn't the punishment reflect the crime and not be influenced by the eventual race outcome? Seems like some opportunistic criticisms.

    Can't believe NASCAR never noticed we were using a gas-electric hybrid.
    Newman says they don't cheat. (AP)
    Incidentally, we've had a couple of interesting polls on Yahoo! Sports related to this issue. The first posed this choice and results after more than 8,700 votes:

    Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 win:
    Legit – 52 percent
    Tainted – 48 percent

    Despite the controversy, a small majority of fans who voted here think Johnson deserved the win.

    The other poll, as of Wednesday, still is posted on our main NASCAR page. It concerns whether Knaus' penalty was fair and addresses the question of whether points should have been deducted (the plurality says yes). View the results.

    The consensus, if there is one: Johnson won fair and square, but Knaus' actions should have cost the team points.

    Some who have written in believe I was too hard on Tony Stewart following the 500 in the "What Went Down" column, but most agreed that Stewart's driving left a bit to be desired and possibly should have incurred more significant penalties.

    We, of course, ran a poll on Yahoo! Sports. This one wasn't close. The results of more than 16,000 votes:

    Stewart's driving at Daytona:
    Top notch – 26 percent
    Out of control – 74 percent

    The issue of rough driving initially centered around Daytona (and by extension Talladega). But bump drafting can happen at a handful of other big tracks. California Speedway, site of this Sunday's Cup race, is one of those venues. This issue, and NASCAR's need to reluctantly involve itself in it, could resurface this weekend.

    Johnson has been doing the typical post-500 win media blitz. During Monday night's "Late Show," Johnson seemed as at-ease in an interview as I've ever seen him – even when David Letterman was pressing him on Knaus' cheating.

    But Johnson has become defensive at times this week when asked about Newman's comments, pointing out that rules-bending often accompanies wins by the No. 48 team. Newman sure did have a lot to say, and then he tried to qualify it all by saying he wasn't taking shots at Johnson directly.

    Then Johnson shot back at Newman over fuel mileage, which seemed to be a petty response, but also somewhat justified considering Newman was borderline out of line with his criticisms.

    Both of these guys made their points on Sunday and probably should have just stopped there rather than continuing the back and forth. Still, the somewhat unfriendly dialogue adds spice and makes for another interesting potential storyline this weekend.

    No, this feud isn't quite reaching Shani Davis-Chad Hedrick levels, but it could become fun to watch.

    As could the Matt Kenseth-Stewart feud. And Jeff Green-Dale Jarrett. And Jamie McMurray-Kurt Busch. And Kyle Busch-[insert driver here].

    What a week.

    February 19, 2006
    Let's get started
    By Bob Margolis

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Race day is finally here.

    After two weeks here in the warm (at times) Florida sun, I'm definitely ready for today's race – the Great American Race. Now I understand why Bill France Sr. came to this place. The weather is great and nothing beats racing in Florida in February.

    One of the keys to having a great day at the Daytona 500 is to get to the track early enough to avoid the traffic. It's nasty. Finding a back way into the track is critical.

    Once in the track, the first thing that strikes you is that there are people everywhere – and it's only 7:00 a.m. Did they all spend the night here?

    The Cup garage is abuzz in activity, with all teams working on their cars. Engines are revving, tires and pit boxes are being moved to pit road and crew members are running through their prerace checklist.

    Does Barry Switzer also own a car?
    Fans gather prerace. (AP)
    "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno led a stream of celebrities and dignitaries ushered in to talk with the media. A great lover of cars, Leno was funny and down-to-earth. He enjoyed talking about his huge car collection. When asked by a reporter how many he had, Leno joked that the reporter was sounding like his wife. He then admitted he owns more than 80 cars.

    For the second time, Leno will be driving the pace car for the start of the Daytona 500. He also did it a couple of years ago for the Indy 500.

    Regular pace car driver Brett Bodine told me that Leno had a problem keeping his speed at exactly 55 mph. That's essential since the drivers will set their pit road speed according to the pace car speed on the pace laps. Just one mph difference and everyone will be speeding as they drive down pit road.

    While sitting up in the press box during the morning, it's great entertainment watching the sea of people who have been out on the grassy area of the tri-oval and walking up onto the track.

    A new tradition for this race is for fans to write a personal greeting to their favorite driver on the black-and-white, square checkered blocks that make up the start/finish line. They're also writing messages on the outside wall for 10 yards on each side of the line.

    Jon Bon Jovi came with his band and did a sound check to the cheers of the fans. Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas practiced the national anthem. Actor James Caan also is here.

    And for the first time all week, the grandstand on the back straight – the Superstretch, as it is called – is filling with people.

    They say there are a quarter-million people here. I'd say there's more.

    I talked for a while with Robbie Loomis, who acknowledged that Bobby Labonte will have to start at the rear of the field due to an engine change. I doubt that will have any affect on how the No. 43 car does. Loomis told me he's confident that they'll win a race or two this year.

    "We've got a few miles to go before we do, but we'll get there," he said.

    Labonte is my dark horse. Former Busch champion David Green is his spotter.

    Time to go. Let's get this party started.

    February 18, 2006
    By Jon Baum

    Daytona is about history. It's about prestige. It's about glory and tragedy.

    It's also about something else.

    Whenever the superspeedway races come around, NASCAR is all about the Big One.

    I'm referring, of course, to the spectacular multi-car wrecks that very often (but not quite always) accompany restrictor plate racing. Usually, the question isn't if, but when the huge wreck will happen.

    It's what fans expect to see.

    But is that really what they want to see?

    Maybe they are stalking Tom Gordon?
    Lots of cars not wrecking. (AP)
    In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wondered why anyone would possibly watch NASCAR other that to see the wrecks. Of course, in another recent issue the author actually named the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" as one of the best songs of 2005, so let's keep some perspective here.

    (Don't get me wrong, Stephen King is the man in multiple mediums: Books, movies, the EW column ... and while he's not really involved in the show, USA's "The Dead Zone" is solid. Hey, Anthony Michael Hall can act ... and Nicole de Boer's pretty cute. As for "My Humps" ... well, it's catchy, innocuous and kind of funny, but among the best? Either that's a delusional point of view or a sad commentary on the state of the music industry. But I digress ...)

    It is mildly baffling that someone who became an amazingly successful author by writing books filled with suspense and tension is, in his overly simplistic and stereotypical description of the sport, missing where much of the allure really lies.

    It's about the anticipation.

    For when the green flag falls, the fans begin to wait not for the big wreck but for the big wreck not to happen.

    Whenever Talladega – which is similar but certainly not identical to Daytona – comes around, this one friend of mine calls or emails me with this simple message: "Are you ready to hold your breath for four hours?"

    That's what watching restrictor plate racing is like. With cars racing at 190 mph with other cars inches in front of, behind and to the side of them, one small mistake by one driver or one small mechanical failure can at any moment, in just a split-second, start a wreck that takes out half the field.

    But the payoff isn't the wreck. Rather, it's the drivers being talented enough to avoid it.


    Sure, we're spoiled, but fans still should feel some amazement at watching these guys not wreck. Many are so good that they easily make other drivers' lists of who can be trusted never to make even the smallest gaffe while going three-wide into a turn.

    Beyond avoiding the wrecks, these guys routinely pull off daring passes that make the best playground basketball moves seem pedestrian.

    Yes, big crashes are what make the sports highlight shows, but it's hard to capture the building drama of lap after lap after lap of side-by-side racing in a 30-second highlight package.

    That drama is, however, more than evident over the course of a race. Heck, all it really takes is a few laps.

    So, Mr. King, if you've got nothing else to do Sunday afternoon, tune into the Daytona 500. Maybe you'll be surprised.

    And surely, at some point, you'll be left breathless.

    February 17, 2006
    Hallowed ground
    By Bob Margolis

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – I wasn't at the Daytona 500 on the day Dale Earnhardt died. For a reason I can no longer remember, I went home the day before the race.

    Not being at the track didn't lessen the impact upon me of what happened.

    Since the accident, it's always been a bit eerie coming to the speedway. Driving into the tunnel under Turn 4 which opens up into the infield of the track, you are just yards away from where Earnhardt's Monte Carlo came to a final stop.

    Thursday morning, I walked over to the infield area adjacent to Turns 3 and 4 to chat with fans, some of whom were camped out in the exact same spots on Feb. 18, 2001.

    The infield is a surreal place. It is an encampment filled with vehicles of all kinds, with some designed to be part of a makeshift scaffold.

    The dress code here is shirtless and shorts. Those wearing shirts sport ones bearing the logos and names of their favorite drivers. There are a whole lot of red shirts with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 here.

    There is the smell of tarp and canvas, along with burning charcoal – and on this morning, fried eggs and bacon. And occasionally, even at 9 a.m., the distinctive aroma of beer.

    There are flags flying high bearing designs that say "3 Forever" and "This place is still Daletona."

    NASCAR fans are unique among sports fans.

    The immediate aftermath of the crash.
    The immediate aftermath of the crash. (AP)
    I doubt you'll see a Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth flag in the crowd at Yankee Stadium, or even a Reggie White banner at Lambeau Field.

    I expect we'll always see Earnhardt flags flying – especially here.

    Earnhardt's death changed everything.

    One long-time Daytona 500 spectator/camper knew why it had happened.

    "NASCAR didn't pay attention after Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty died. So God picked [Earnhardt] up on the last lap of your biggest race so they'd have to stop and think."

    Roper, Irwin and Petty all died the year before from injuries similar to Earnhardt's. Petty was the grandson of The King, Richard Petty.

    Most fans remember Earnhardt's crash as being nothing unusual, although one did say it had a "funny" sound to it – more like a boom rather than what you would normally hear during a wreck.

    There are no marks on the outside wall, no memorial at the spot. But standing alongside the infield fence and looking up at the high-banked track brought about the same feeling I got from being at Dealey Plaza in Dallas or the battlefield at Gettysburg.

    It's strange to be where someone has died. Especially someone you've met.

    I wondered if it was hard for the fans to come and watch the action in the spot where Earnhardt died.

    "Not for me," said another race fan that has been in his same camping spot for the past decade. "It was just one of them things. I'm glad that NASCAR has started to look more at safety. I know the cars will never be safe, but at least now, they're thinking safety first."

    Change in auto racing unfortunately comes only after tragedy. It wasn't until the death in 1994 of Ayrton Senna, one of Formula One racing's greatest legends, that necessary safety changes were made to the cars and racing circuits in that series.

    Sometimes you don't make a change until you're forced to make it.

    Life (and racing) is funny that way.

    February 15, 2006
    Theater of the Absurd
    By Bob Margolis

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This year's Daytona Speedweeks had been a pretty quiet affair until after the first race of the season – Sunday's rain-delayed Bud Shootout.

    Then all hell broke loose after an emotional Tony Stewart opened up to the media following the Shootout, using strong words about bump drafting that he later realized might have been a bit too strong.

    Of course, some in the media who hadn't had anything juicy to write about prior to Sunday immediately jumped on Stewart's comments about the possibility of someone getting killed and made a big deal about it. That, in turn, forced NASCAR officials to make a declaration that effective immediately, NASCAR would begin to "police" bump drafting by scrutinizing the on-track decisions being made by drivers.

    If NASCAR officials determine any move is a blatant bump draft, the offending driver will be penalized with a drive-through penalty.

    Most of the people in the garage I talked to think this was a knee-jerk decision and likened it to having to call pass interference in football – almost always a debatable call.

    He's just joking around ... right?
    Stewart in a more pleasant mood. (AP)
    I expect that the first time NASCAR officials rule against someone they determine is aggressively bump drafting, it will be debated, appealed and be subject to the kind of language you wouldn't use around your mother.

    All of this, of course, is really much ado about nothing.

    Keep in mind, Stewart was the only driver to complain on Sunday about the practice which, as several drivers have reminded us, is as old as restrictor plate racing. Perhaps Smoke had received a few hard licks and had not had the chance to return the favor.

    Nevertheless, when the current Nextel Cup champion talks about an issue, especially with the kind of emotion he exhibited Sunday evening, the media, and in this case NASCAR officials, usually listen.

    So much for quiet.

    In just two days, we've gone from nothing to write about to writing about Stewart's comments, to writing about NASCAR's reaction to Stewart's comments, to now debating about how NASCAR can make a ruling that is solely based on a judgment call by a race official during a race.

    Speedweeks has indeed become Theater of the Absurd.

    Theater II: The Chad Knaus affair

    It came as no surprise to me that Chad Knaus was once again caught "pushing the envelope" by NASCAR officials and sent home for an undetermined period of time.

    I still can't figure out why people continue to make it a bigger story than it already is.

    Knaus has admitted that he pushed the envelope (or in layman's terms, got caught with his hand in the cookie jar). Team owner Rick Hendrick also has acknowledged it, as has driver Jimmie Johnson.

    So can we please just move on?

    By the way, a rumor floating around the garage says that Knaus has been trying to get out of his contract at Hendrick so that he can move to Evernham Motorsports, and that he might be trying to get fired to accomplish that goal.

    I'm not so sure about that. But you never know.

    What's next?

    February 15, 2006
    Cupid and The King
    By Bob Margolis

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tuesday was Valentine's Day and even NASCAR sets aside that day for lovers.

    There was no NASCAR track activity here, but it was a busy day nonetheless.

    The on-track activity was limited to three IROC practice sessions. On hand to turn laps in the equally-prepared Pontiacs the IROC series uses in competition were Grand Am co-champion Wayne Taylor, IndyCar veteran Scott Sharp and former road racing champion Max Papis. The lone stock car driver was seven-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel.

    Kimmel is having a ball being in the IROC series. I'm glad he finally got an invitation to participate. I'm betting that he'll do very well against the rest of the field.

    All four drivers ran a ton of laps alongside veteran driver Dave Marcis, who is IROC's chief test driver. The IROC race is on Friday at 6 p.m. E.T., before the Craftsman Truck Series race.

    Bump along

    Tony Stewart's post-Shootout comments about bump drafting still are reverberating – so much so that NASCAR has announced new rules to take effect immediately.

    I think putting new rules in place to police the bump drafting is another unnecessary opportunity for race officials to make arbitrary decisions that will affect the outcome of a race.

    About to be cranky.
    Stewart before the Shootout. (Getty Images)
    I was told that when Stewart met with NASCAR officials after Sunday's Shootout, it was more about damage control than anything else. This after Stewart had realized just how strong the reaction was to his comments about bump drafting.

    NASCAR PR Summit

    In the morning there was the annual NASCAR PR Summit, which is set up for NASCAR media officials and team public relations personnel to get together and discuss issues of importance.

    They also hand out awards for the best PR person – voted on by the PR reps themselves – from each of NASCAR's three top series. There is also an award for best track PR person.

    As a beat writer in NASCAR, you have to interact with these PR people on a daily basis. Some are very good and help you get access to their drivers. Others, unfortunately, allow themselves to be dictated to by the drivers – many of whom would prefer not to talk to the media.

    One of the greatest myths in all of racing is that NASCAR drivers are accessible. Most are not and simply hide themselves away from both the media and fans, unless they're being directed to interact with them.

    It is one thing I wish was different about NASCAR.

    I'd become accustomed as a journalist to having easy access to drivers – especially after working in drag racing and open wheel racing, where drivers are more accessible and eager to talk to the motorsports press.

    Back to the Summit

    NASCAR also introduced new procedures for handling prerace and postrace media interaction. The new course of action still won't allow journalists to talk to the winner of the race until 45 to 60 minutes after the checkered flag. Not soon enough for most.

    Last August, nearly three hours passed after Tony Stewart took the checkered flag at Indianapolis before he met with the media.

    NASCAR also unveiled a new and very detailed race statistics system that will debut this year. Until now, nearly all NASCAR statistics have been based on the start/finish line and race results.

    That's all changed. NASCAR has moved into the 21st century.

    This new system – which uses multiple scoring loops around the track – introduces real-time statistics that are incredibly detailed. For example, the stats track which driver is the fastest in each turn and who makes the most passes in the final 20 laps of a race.

    It also includes a brand new driver rating system, which is much like the NFL's quarterback rating system.

    The King meets the kid

    On Tuesday afternoon we shot the Daytona edition of our SportStream video show outside the Speedway with guests Richard Petty and Denny Hamlin.

    I was fortunate to be able to introduce Hamlin to The King.

    "It looks like you showed them a few things," Petty said to Hamlin, making reference to Hamlin's win on Sunday in the Shootout. "All you've really got to do is close your eyes and hold on!"

    The King was joking, of course, but he held his arms out as if steering a race car and closed his eyes.

    "There's not much else to do," he added. "You'll be driving along thinking you're really fast and then a guy will pass you on the outside and another on the inside like you're standing still. And there's nothing you can do about it.

    "You've got 150 miles more on Thursday [in the Gatorade Duel] and then 500 on Sunday. But you'll be alright."

    I got a sense that Petty was talking to Hamlin in a language only they could understand. I figure that racing in a stock car at 190 mph at Daytona puts you in a unique class – like being an astronaut. You have to experience it to be able to know what they're talking about.

    The tempo picks up Wednesday. That's when the Craftsman Trucks and the Busch cars hit the track for the first time, joining the Cup cars.

    Then everything gets kicked up a notch.

    February 11, 2006
    Wet enthusiasm
    By Bob Margolis

    Someone once said there's no worse place to be than at a race track in the rain.

    I agree.

    The cars are all here at Daytona International Speedway, as are the drivers. And despite the threat of rain and cool weather, the fans also are here – thousands of them, mostly dressed in red (for Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and orange (for Tony Stewart).

    One problem, though.

    While Saturday was meant to be the official (or exhibition, anyway) start of the 2006 Nextel Cup season, someone forgot to remind Mother Nature that it's supposed to be warm and sunny in Florida in February.

    It's not.

    Fickle lady, that Mother Nature.

    The day started out OK, with blue skies and warm, southerly breezes that sent the temperature into the high 70s before dark clouds began to appear on the horizon around 2 p.m. ET.

    Then the rains came and it poured for about an hour, soaking the ground and bringing out the jet dryers that waged a losing battle to dry off the track. The air temperature dropped dramatically as well, sending everyone searching for sweatshirts and jackets.

    But the weather didn't dampen fan enthusiasm. The Nextel Fanzone in the middle of the garage area was full of fans all day, even during the rain. The Fandeck above the garage was packed five deep, especially over Junior and Stewart's garages.

    Is this a two-way mirror?
    Fans swarm the No. 29 garage.
    (Photo: Bob Margolis, Yahoo! Sports)
    I love the garage viewing windows. They've got this neat open slot under the window that allows for items to be passed to drivers inside the garage. The windows are always full of fans pleading with arms outstretched, one hand holding anything that could be autographed and the other holding a Sharpie.

    Earlier in the day, before the rains came, the Cup teams had their first two practice sessions for the 500, giving everyone a chance to stretch the muscles of their race cars.

    Kyle Petty raised eyebrows in the morning session when he was third fastest. Maybe the Robbie Loomis deal is beginning to pay off. Petty didn't go out in the afternoon session.

    Jeff Gordon was second-fastest in both sessions, reminding us all that he still is a four-time Cup champion and that he has won six points races here – not to mention victories in qualifiers and Bud Shootouts.

    Robby Gordon, who struggled at several races last year and failed to qualify for the '05 Daytona 500, was 30th fastest in the first practice, 29th in the second. Good for him. The other owner/driver, Michael Waltrip, was 50th and 45th, respectively. Not so good for the two-time 500 winner.

    After Friday night's Shootout practice, Tony Stewart was joking around and giving me a hard time while I was interviewing him. This means Stewart is in a good mood because he's got a good car.

    That's good for me because he's my pick to win the Shootout.

    The first driver's meeting of the new season was held Saturday, and it was the first time I actually felt like it was a race weekend, given the unusual schedule over the past few days.

    The driver's meeting, which takes place exactly two hours before the start of the race, is one of my favorite parts of the weekend. It is an extraordinary 10 minutes when everyone – drivers, crew chiefs, race officials, media, visiting dignitaries and celebrities – is in one place at the same time.

    It's also a time when the drivers are relaxed and joking around, and for me, it's like being able to hang out in the locker room before the big game.

    Saturday night's meeting wasn't filled with dignitaries or celebrities, but it was the first one of the new season and the atmosphere was exciting.

    Elliott Sadler's crew chief, Tommy Baldwin, was late for the meeting. He was publicly scolded by director of competition Robin Pemberton, but the usual penalty of making the car start at the back of the field wasn't assessed.

    As I left the driver's meeting I spoke with three crew chiefs who told me that because of the rain, they wouldn't be racing. They're almost always ahead of the curve on these things.

    They were right.

    Shortly thereafter, the Shootout was postponed until Sunday afternoon.

    February 11, 2006
    Rain, pets, romance and charity
    By Jerry Bonkowski

    The huge Nor'easter that is burying the eastern part of the U.S. in snow is having an offshoot effect here at Daytona International Speedway, as on-track action was stopped by a huge mid-afternoon downpour on Saturday.

    Local weather forecasters in both Daytona Beach and nearby Orlando were predicting that the rain would wash out Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout – which indeed it did. And while dry conditions should return for Sunday's qualifying and postponed Shootout, temperatures are expected to top out around 53 degrees – if we're lucky.

    Napping is a LaJoie for Randy.
    Drivers adapt to the rain. (AP)
    So much for staying on the beach. It's nice to look at from my third-floor hotel window, but forget walking on the sand. Good thing I brought my winter jacket with me, just in case.

    This is Florida? Hell, I should have stayed back home and watched things on TV.

    And to think I was going to head over to Disney World on my day off on Monday. Think I'll just sleep the day away instead.

    If there's an untapped market, NASCAR usually finds it.

    Friday, a new book entitled "Pit Road Pets" was announced. I wonder if the next book in the series will be "Pit Lizards."

    (If you don't know what that means, you're not a true NASCAR fan.)

    And on Saturday, the media was "treated" – and I use that word VERY loosely – to free sample boxes of "Officially Licensed NASCAR Bacon."

    The packages boast that not only is the product pre-cooked and microwaveable, but that it's ready in 10 seconds.

    "Rev up the flavor of your next breakfast, BLT, burger or salad with delicious, fully cooked NASCAR Bacon," the box proclaims. "You'll taste the excitement with every bite and enjoy the convenience with every meal. Just serve our quality bacon to your family and watch it go fast. The delicious flavor of NASCAR Pre-Cooked Bacon. Taste the excitement."

    Look at the nutrition facts, and you quickly find there's absolutely no Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium or Iron.

    But there is some good news: only 70 calories for every three cooked slices, 45 of which are from fat.

    On the flip side, the new caramel-flavored Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are nothing short of outstanding. I've downed a handful in the last three days. So much for trying to stick to my diet while down here.

    So what's next?

    This coming Tuesday, the new line of NASCAR-themed Harlequin Romance books makes its official debut with a press conference at Daytona International Speedway.

    I haven't read the book yet, but I can just imagine a possible excerpt:

    "As she fell helplessly into his arms, he cradled her with a bravado and strength that most men can only dream about having. He was a true romantic, with a tender and sensitive side, yet he also had the grittiness of a backyard mechanic, not afraid or embarrassed to have dirt under his fingernails. It was part of his electric machismo, the animal-like lure that prompted women to swoon, have their hearts skip a beat and lust over him in a way that is far from the "proper" way they were raised or are supposed to be. And when he spoke, his voice made the last remaining vestige of opposition to his touch give way: 'Hey, I'm Dale Earnhardt Jr. How's it going?'"


    Speaking of Junior ... maybe it's me, but does anyone else think he may have another poor season in 2006?

    His average speed during Friday's practice sessions was 190.247 mph, good for only 13th among Budweiser Shootout competitors.

    During Saturday's two practice sessions before the rain fell, Earnhardt dropped like a rock. In the morning session, he could do no better than 26th (185.254 mph), and he dropped even further to 33rd in the afternoon practice session with a top speed of just 184.532, nearly four mph shy of Elliott Sadler's session-leading 188.454 mph.

    I was one of the few people in the media who said prior to last season that Junior was not going to finish in the top 10, and I'm starting to get that same feeling. Time will tell, but what the team does in the days between now and next Sunday's Daytona 500 could go a long way toward determining if Junior fans are going to suffer though yet another painful season.

    Jimmie Johnson's critics say he is self-centered on the race track, never willing to take the blame for the mishaps of which he is a part. But Johnson's stock likely went up in their eyes Saturday afternoon when he announced the creation of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation (

    Johnson was joined by team owner Rick Hendrick, football player Mike Rucker and baseball players Marcus Giles and Mike Hampton, who all pledged support and assistance in making the foundation a success.

    "We've been so lucky and blessed to be where we are, there's something inside of us that says, 'You have to do this,'" Johnson said of the motivation he and wife Chandra had to form the organization. "We need to give something back."

    The foundation's first activity will be a fund-raising charity auction on eBay which will allow fans to bid on sports memorabilia as well as special event packages – like going fishing in the Florida Keys with Hendrick – in an effort to help the foundation's philanthropic efforts.

    One of the biggest and most immediate goals the Johnsons have is to build a bowling alley at the Victory Junction Gang – the camp founded by fellow racer Kyle Petty and his wife Pattie.

    February 9, 2006
    Media frenzy
    By Bob Margolis

    Everyone always talks about the too-brief NASCAR offseason. I think it's just about the right length. I was looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.

    So after several preseason testing sessions both in Daytona and Las Vegas, Daytona 500 Speedweeks is now upon us.

    Is this his community service?
    The media surrounds Busch.
    (Photo: Bob Margolis, Yahoo! Sports)
    First up: Thursday's NASCAR Media Day.

    Let me explain what Media Day is all about.

    NASCAR's public relations department sets up a media event every year prior to the Daytona 500. I've always wondered why, since most of us in the media already have had ample time to talk one-on-one with the drivers either at the preseason test sessions in Daytona and Las Vegas or on the Charlotte media tour – all of which take place during January or early February.

    So you again find yourself face-to-face with each driver, searching for another question to ask that either you haven't asked yourself or haven't heard someone else ask.

    In other words, you spend a good deal of time hoping to get some information you can use.

    This year's edition of Media Day was held in a huge and appropriately designed circus tent outside the main grandstands. Inside, the tent was decorated with movie props, posters and two seven-foot-tall Oscar replicas for a party to be held later this week.

    A weird setting, indeed.

    Nevertheless, the tent was big enough to hold more than 200 members of the auto racing press, drivers from all three of NASCAR's premier series and a multitude of television cameras and other electronic media.

    There were rows of chairs and tables for the media to use to write or file stories. But from what I could tell, most used the high-speed internet lines to answer email, correspond via instant messaging or read the latest on the NHL gambling scandal.

    Now, NASCAR makes every effort to have this be a fairly organized affair, with one side of the tent curtained off to form individual areas, each with a chair and table for drivers to sit at and be questioned.

    But for the unaccustomed observer, it looked like organized chaos.

    Just about every regular Cup driver was there, as were several Busch and Truck Series drivers, like 2005 CTS champion Ted Musgrave and his new teammate Todd Bodine (who still looks a lot like open wheel ace Paul Tracy, if you ask me).

    Drivers were brought in, usually four at a time, for a 30-minute period. It was too short a time for some, while embarrassingly lengthy for others. There was nothing more pathetic than seeing a crowd of writers pushing and shoving for a better spot around one driver, while just a few feet away sat another driver with just one or two writers chatting him up.

    It was easy to tell when a Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr. was holding court in one of the curtained booths. The crowd was 15 or 20 deep, jammed around a two-foot-in-diameter table, making it nearly impossible to ask a question – especially one that made sense.

    I lost track of how many times I heard the questions, "So what do you think your chances are for repeating the title?" or "Will you make the Chase this year?" asked of both Stewart and Gordon.

    Stewart, by the way, looks a whole lot better than when I last saw him on Sunday morning at the Rolex 24, when he was in excruciating pain from the rib injury he suffered after flipping his midget car. I think he'll repeat as champion in '06.

    A few other things stood out:


  • Bill Elliott made me laugh when he referenced my favorite movie, "Groundhog Day," when he was talking about testing at Daytona.

    "You wake up, turn off the alarm clock and do the same day again," Elliott said.

  • Teammates (and avid North Carolina Tar Heels basketball fans) Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler and I exchanged opinions on how well the young Tar Heels team did against powerhouse Duke during Tuesday's game. Neither driver attended the game – Sadler couldn't get anyone to drive with him up to Chapel Hill and Jarrett had his daughter's basketball game to attend.

    I learned a long time ago that most drivers would much rather talk about something other than racing when given a chance.

  • Casey Mears showed off the expensive Rolex watch he received for winning last month's Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race. Then he told me he put his arm around Tony Stewart just to show it off. Stewart will win the Rolex, eventually.

  • It was nice to go one-on-one with Jimmie Johnson, who always gives a good answer to each question. Johnson comes across as someone you'd really like to hang out with.

  • The always quotable Kyle Petty drew a huge crowd. I expect that most were waiting for him to make a comment about his long-time publicist Chip Williams, who recently was arrested. No one asked him about it. That was good.

  • I learned that Cup rookie Denny Hamlin and buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr. play in the same Madden NFL 2005 online league. Hamlin is likeable, and he's very talented in a race car.

  • Bill France Jr. made an appearance, sitting at one of the tables in the eating area and holding court for some of the veteran writers for about half an hour. I wasn't covering NASCAR when Bill Jr. was running the show, and when I see him I relate to him as if he were a former U.S. president. I'm not sure why, but i suppose it's because when I look at him I realize how much of an impact he's made on auto racing in the U.S.

  • Away from the booths, the other side of the tent was cordoned off for the electronic media, including NBC, Fox and ESPN – which is being welcomed back as a full-fledged television partner for the first time in years. Remember watching reporter Mike Massaro having to interview drivers while standing outside of the track?

  • Then there was the conga line – aptly named for the separate line of local television cameras. It was a 30-foot-long line of cameras where each driver had five minutes to answer questions asked by a staff producer with little or no knowledge of the subject. Then the driver moved on to the next station.

  • Finally, Kurt Busch continues to give an Oscar-worthy Stepford Driver performance while simultaneously working hard toward winning the 2006 NASCAR Mr. Congeniality Award. Most journalists are betting that the first time he has some kind of on-track altercation, we'll be witness to a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde moment.

    And this was just the first day …

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    Updated on Thursday, Feb 16, 2006 12:02 am, EST

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