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