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November 4, 2006
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
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
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.
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
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.)
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 …