Marbles: Don't slow down

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo! Sports

In From the Marbles, Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR team ponders the latest news, biggest issues and behind-the-scenes action in the NASCAR world. Submit your question or comment below for future use in From the Marbles.

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.

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.

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