Marbles: One last look

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo! Sports

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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.

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.

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