The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... As The Kenseth Crumbles, Lajoie On Drugs, And Bruton The Bully? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 23, 2010

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Did You Notice? … With Todd Parrott’s reassignment Tuesday, Matt Kenseth is now on his fifth crew chief in less than three years?

Let’s review:

  • Robbie Reiser (1999-2007): Reassigned to the Roush GM post after November, 2007. Together, Kenseth and Reiser earned 16 wins, 79 top-5s, 141 top-10s, and the 2003 Winston Cup.
  • Chip Bolin (2008): Former team engineer led team to winless season, collecting nine top-5 and 20 top-10 finishes. Kenseth is 11th in the final standings, his worst finish since 2001.
  • Drew Blickensderfer (2009–Daytona 2010): Went two-for-two in first two races for Kenseth, including a rain-shortened Daytona 500, then digressed from media darling to team scapegoat after unprecedented slump that followed. Kenseth missed the Chase for the first time in his career, then tied his career low in points (14th) while piling up his fewest amount of top-5 and top-10 finishes since 2001.
  • Todd Parrott (February – June 2010): Four top-5 and seven top-10s in 14 starts together. Not that bad, until you consider just two top-10s have come in the last nine races, with only 35 laps led halfway through the year.
  • Jimmy Fennig (June 2010 – ???): The legendary crew chief gets nudged out of a research and development role, where he’d been since “retiring” from running the No. 6 Ford and David Ragan in November.

What does this recent pattern tell us about Kenseth? Clearly, he’s running out of patience in finding a combination that works to turn the team around. Sure, the Wisconsinite should make the playoffs with ease, but the cruel irony of the man dubbed Mr. Consistency is his fanaticism about returning to Victory Lane. Kenseth has led a total of 884 laps combined the last three seasons, compared to 912 the final year he and Reiser were paired together – and that was an off year for them. It’s one thing to scratch and claw for a top-10 finish compared to settling for sixth after leading 50 or 75 laps. For the last three years, Kenseth has been stuck in that first category for virtually every race – and he’s tired of it.

Jimmy Fennig has worked with a wide variety of teams and drivers in the Cup ranks, but old school experience may not be the answer for Matt Kenseth.

At the same time, it’s notable this crew chief is the second straight selection that can be considered “old school.” Fennig may have been working in R&D, but he made his career working with veterans Bobby Allison, Dick Trickle, Jimmy Spencer, Mark Martin, then developing youngsters like Ragan and 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. Simulations are not his forte, but motivating the man behind the wheel certainly is. I believe Kenseth thinks that’s what he needs; while I thought he and Parrott hit it off initially, it felt like the driver was still in control of all the decisions on pit road.

And while I thought the two would be successful, Parrott hasn’t exactly been anyone’s first choice in a crisis. Since guiding the No. 88 Ford with Dale Jarrett from 1996-2002, he hasn’t spent more than a season and a half in the same role with the same team. A temperamental guy, he seemed to fail the second this recent slump began and Kenseth started showing shades of the Eeyore personality he tends to slip into when times get tough.

Also notice how Roush has catered to the wishes of his drivers, in particular the Big Three: Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards. He’s moved mountains to cater to Kenseth’s wishes, even with the destabilization a new crew chief brings to any program while at the same time bending to Biffle and Edwards to do the opposite. In both those cases, a crew chief change might not be the worst thing, but his drivers are so adamantly against it the owner refuses to act.

The bottom line in all this mess is the one thing Kenseth and Roush are both missing: good engineering people. Running the same retreads on top of the pit box for Kenseth – whether it’s Fennig, Parrott, or even Reiser – doesn’t change the widening gap in mastering Cup technology behind the scenes. Roush isn’t losing the battle in the engine room, he’s losing at Dungeons and Dragons behind a computer. More importantly, I don’t think Kenseth fully understands how much that’s out of his control.

Perhaps in three months, when this team’s still in the same spot with Fennig, he’ll figure that out soon enough. Could Reiser make a difference here? To a certain extent; but with no on-track testing allowed, one man can’t change a whole fleet of setups that open each Friday half-a-second off the pace.

Did You Notice? … Randy Lajoie’s shocking admission he smoked marijuana? The former NASCAR Nationwide champ turned-radio/TV analyst, supporter of son Corey’s driving career, and safety guru is suspended indefinitely for violating the sport’s drug policy. Tested because of a one-shot deal to spot for Joe Gibbs Racing at Nashville, Lajoie admitted he smoked marijuana one week earlier during the Coca-Cola 600 weekend in Charlotte. Tested a few days later, the failure became public knowledge today along with an apology to his family, employers (ESPN has already suspended him), and legion of fans disappointed a 48-year-old would engage in such behavior.

Before we go any further … can someone answer this question? Why in the world would you smoke marijuana three days before you know you’re going to be drug tested? Did Lajoie think he was going to be above the law? That part of it makes no sense.

Rumors swirl about the circumstances surrounding Lajoie’s marijuana “experiment,” but it’s too early to fully substantiate any of those, making me hesitant to comment further. I will say it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize it’s the biggest bust since Jeremy Mayfield’s failed test last May. And it also doesn’t take a major leap to realize that if this is a one-time thing, as Lajoie claims, it’s clear he wasn’t doing it by himself in the corner. My hunch is revealing the circumstances behind his experiment – if it ever comes out – may implicate others in the NASCAR garage, and it’ll be interesting to see how much we uncover in the coming weeks.

Did You Notice? … Everyone’s groaning over Danica Patrick’s return? But before we go kicking her to the curb, let’s be fair and note she’s not exactly the only rookie that’s struggled behind the wheel. Sure, that 34.0 average finish is downright disgusting, but check out these quick summaries of other Nationwide driver’s rookie seasons:

Though with far less adoration bestowed upon him, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s 2010 rookie campaign in the Nationwide Series is looking awfully similar to Danica Patrick’s.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: Roush Fenway driver has wrecked in 10 of his 13 starts, with more DNFs (five) than TOP 25 finishes (four). He responded to owner Jack Roush’s plea that “his rookies will be better in the second half” by slumping to 26th, one lap down, at Road America.

Colin Braun: The second half of Roush Fenway’s dynamic disaster, he was removed from full-time duty after five wrecks in the first eight races. Rumors were Jack Roush wanted to fire him completely, but sponsor Con-way Freight wouldn’t allow it. He’s been marginally better as of late, with three straight top-11 finishes after his crew chief got fired after a reported incident with his crew at a strip club.

James Buescher: Dropped from James Finch’s No. 1 ride after pissing off Cup and Nationwide drivers alike by making Jeff Gordon’s Sunday bumper car adventure look like child’s play. Currently driving his father-in-law’s Truck after his bid to buy the operation – keeping the groom-to-be employed – fell through. Four official DNFs in his 10-race stint … all for wrecks.

These three alone have combined for over 20 crashes on the year, making Danica’s three-race debut seem par for the course in comparison. Only Brian Scott and perhaps Trevor Bayne have stood out as possible future talents in a farm system that’s no longer growing crops.

So perhaps we should lower our expectations a bit. After all, this IndyCar crossover star hasn’t even won a race over there this season, scoring just one podium finish (a runner-up at Texas in June). A top-20 finish at New Hampshire, to me, would seem like a win.

One other note: yes, the Nationwide Series has 1,000 problems, and we document them each week. And yes, the pressure is on these young guys more than ever before. But at some point, they’ve got to perform when given the opportunity. Joey Logano didn’t crash 10 times in 13 races while given top-notch equipment. It’s not like Stenhouse and Braun are driving cars from the junkyard … just sayin’ taking the Cup drivers out doesn’t automatically inject some of these guys with more talent.

Did You Notice? … A long list of quick hits before we go…

- The NBA Finals ratings were up significantly this season, with 28.2 million people watching Game 7 of the Lakers-Celtics matchup. That means the NFL, NHL, and NBA championships were all up significantly in viewership and attendance this season. Compare that to NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, this year’s Daytona 500, whose ratings were down 16 percent with only 13.294 million tuning in. Then tell me we’re in bad shape solely due to the economy.

Riiight.

- So much has been made of this whole Shaquille O’Neal – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. race. Me? I’m left wondering what the hype is all about. How many minutes does Shaq play in the NBA nowadays? Didn’t his team not make the finals last season? And I know Dale Jr. is the sport’s Most Popular Driver … but we all know about his recent slump, a two-year ditch that’s hurt his mainstream crossover appeal.

If I’m wrong here, please tell me, but I fail to understand why it’s even a big deal. Two stars past their prime having a race for fun that’ll air on ABC’s summer programming schedule, where about half the regular viewership actually watches? Wake me up when it’s over.

- Rick Hendrick sponsored not only James Finch’s No. 09 car last week, but former HMS driver Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 with Hendrickcars.com. Of note: Nemechek gets his engines and chassis from Red Bull Racing, constantly in the rumor mill to switch to Chevy even though they’re under contract with Toyota for 2012. Also, does anybody else find it weird that an owner of four cars would go out and sponsor two others with his business? Hmph.

- With Robby Gordon’s decision to have P.J. Jones start-and-park Loudon, the possibility exists upwards of eight, if not nine start-and-parkers will be in the race pending sponsorship. That would be the highest number in the modern era, and might be enough for NASCAR to pay attention. A quarter of the field pulling in early at the sport’s highest level? How many will need to do it before they take action?

- OK, so let me get this straight. Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. made $10.3 million last quarter alone, yet they’re arguing with New Hampshire Motor Speedway over a $105,000 difference in security pay? I know this billionaire is a man of principle… but really? You’re trying to undercut a few local, blue collar cops looking to squeeze the system for a little extra overtime one weekend a year? If you were in their shoes … wouldn’t you do the same thing? Smith would be wise to back off, take the hit, and let it go; but based on past history, he won’t, and we know which side will end up winning. Here’s a hint: it’s not the cops.

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slander q. libel
06/23/2010 05:49 AM
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Referring to Bruton Smith as being a man of principle is almost as outrageous a prevarication as calling the Oakland Raiders a football team.

Robin
06/23/2010 06:40 AM
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Apparently Mr. Lajoie (who I don’t like anyway)doesn’t know that marijuana stays in your system for up to 30 days-he is a DOPE head.
Danica returning to the Nationwide series just means that no other driver will be mentioned during the race (even the Cup guys).
Matt’s crew chief change – Can anyone tell me when a crew chief change in mid-season was actually successful for anybody?

wcfan
06/23/2010 07:16 AM
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Tom

I believe it is the city that is trying to squeeze Bruton and the track for more money. This race brings in how many MILLIONS of DOLLARS and they want to fight over THOUSANDS of DOLLARS.

While I will agree Bruton may not be the most upstanding man. He is a business man with a product that right now is wanted in Kentucky.

Carl D.
06/23/2010 07:36 AM
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Tom…

As usual, you raise some good points in your column, but defending Danica Patrick by basically saying “look how bad these other rookies are” pretty much makes the point for her detractors. However, you rightly point out that, as an Indy driver, Patrick hasn’t exactly accomplished much. She may bring a few new viewers to the Nationwide series for a while, but I suspect her long-term impact on Nascar will be marginal at best.

Bill B
06/23/2010 08:04 AM
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Lajoie must think we’re all stupid. How many people out there have tried pot for the first time at age 48? I believe he may not be a regular user but I have a hard time believing it was a first. Reminds me of the proverbial excuse a teenager uses when their parents catch them with something… “I was holding it for a friend”. Yeah, right.

DansMom
06/23/2010 08:16 AM
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EVERYONE is not groaning about Danica Patrick’s return. (3 days and counting… 3, how fitting)

Danica Patrick is the ONLY not Cup Regular to bring ANY notoriety to the Nationwide Series.

Please stop hating on Danica just because she’s a female. There are many females who post on this sight, like myself and noel_w who see Danica as a figurehead for women’s accomplishments in NASCAR.

On this day, 3 days away from her return, we should all pause and reflect on her accomplishments.

DansMom
06/23/2010 08:23 AM
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Tom,

You can win the championship in game 7 of the NBA Finals, the Superbowl AND Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. What championship can you win by finishing first in the Daytona 500? Casual fans want to see championships won, not regular season events won. (Oh, wait… I forgot, the way everyone OVER reacted on this website Jamie MACMurry won the championship didn’t he… didn’t he???)

Let’s compare the Daytona 500 to ANY regular season opening day game in the MLB. How does NASCAR stack up there?

Also, why does the spell checker in the comments section of a RACING website claim that “Daytona” is misspelled? I guess that shows you how the Superbowl of NASCAR is viewed by the general public.

Don’t try to make it something that its’ not.

DansMom
06/23/2010 08:28 AM
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Carl_D… “hasn’t done much” other than WIN and finish in the top 5 (changed to 6, I know) in the TRUE superbowl of racing. Check the facts Carl, Danica has enjoyed success in IRL, a series where 3-4 drivers win ALL the races, she’s done well to bust that trend.

No one liked Dale Sr. when he first started, and there was a sharp learning curve for him. But, in the end he took his looks, personality, driving style and edge and made a name for himself in NASCAR.

Danica could be exponentially more popular and influential if she enjoyed the same success (and/or raced in a less competitive field ala Dale Sr.)

3 days and she’ll be back to try it in NASCAR.

Johnboy60
06/23/2010 10:24 AM
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I think I am going to be sick……

VolcanoNacho
06/23/2010 10:35 AM
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I dont understand the complaint that all Danica is bringing to the sport is sponsorship without talent. We have been dealing with Dale Jr for YEARS and thats exactly what he does. Last time I checked, he is having a very successful NASCAR career while being a completely awful driver.

Carl D.
06/23/2010 10:41 AM
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Dansmom…

Time will tell whether Danica has an impact on Nascar other than some fleeting fan interest.

I find it interesting that you consider Danica a “figurehead for women’s sports”. Personally I don’t have a problem with the way Danica’s GoDaddy commercials objectify women, but I suspect that some women do. I guess it depends on what you consider a being a “figurehead” is, and whether the ends justifies the means.

That said, I truly hope Danica makes it in Nascar, but I have my doubts and I question her commitment to stack car racing. We’ll see.

Carl D.
06/23/2010 10:45 AM
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Er… make that “stock” car racing. Spell checker only works if you use it.

Don Mei
06/23/2010 10:53 AM
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Shall we all hum a few bars of “Dont bogart that joint my friend, pass it over to meeeeee!”
Only 40 days till Brians birthday!! Lets see, thats 37 days after Danica’s return. About the same significance too.

Mark
06/23/2010 11:35 AM
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Randy LaJoie admitting to smoking dope was “ shocking “ ? Anyone other than Mother Theresa admitting to smoking dope at some point in their life is hardly “ shocking .

The Kenseth crew chief “ hat dance “ is quite simply because Matt is almost impossible to work with .

As for Bruton Smith fighting to avoid having to pay more than he is supposed to for anything … rich people don’t get rich by giving money away . And if he doesn’t legitmately owe it , why should we feel he needs to pay it . Yes , he could be a nice guy and give them the extra money , but it’s 100 % his call , not ours .

DoninAjax
06/23/2010 11:56 AM
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If DANica is going to play with the boys, she better learn to act like the boys.

With apologies to ZZ Top,

It’s got bumpers, she better learn how to use ‘em
It’s got fenders, she better not abuse ‘em.

Qualify in the twenties, finish in the thirties. Unless she causes a massive pileup when she is being lapped (again).

Get the excuses ready.

ezrider714
06/23/2010 12:45 PM
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Apologize for smoking pot,get real.Should tell ESPN to pound salt.

Bill B
06/23/2010 12:46 PM
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@DansMom,
RE: “Please stop hating on Danica just because she’s a female.”

A lot of us don’t hate on Danica because she is a female, we hate on her because she is being hyped BECAUSE she is a female and not because of her on track accomplishments.
Come on be honest. I’m not saying she doesn’t have talent, but one win? Good for her but one win does not a superstar make.

RamblinWreck
06/23/2010 01:24 PM
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Pretty tough to side with the billionaire when he’s trying to give local cops a 60% pay cut… but like the good engineer I am, I’ll work out a solution that makes everyone happy:
Bruton needs to come up with $105,000 to make the difference between what the police are asking and what he’d like to pay. Tom expects eight start-and-park cars this weekend (although Labonte will drive Gordon’s car, not Jones, and Jayski says they expect to race on Sunday). Cut $15,000 each from the winnings of the last eight finishers. Those cars still get over $50,000 apiece for nothing, so there’s an extra $120,000 in the pot. $105,000 goes to the Loudon police, $14,000 goes to Bruton’s wallet, and $1,000 is my fee for keeping everyone happy.

VolcanoNacho
06/23/2010 01:41 PM
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Jr was hyped because of who his father was and not his on-track accomplishments…

Steve
06/23/2010 01:49 PM
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RamblinWreck, your idea was humorous, but first you have to prove that all those cars were start and park. Good luck with that.

The NBA Finals was also between 2 of the biggest rivals in sports. You can’t compare that to the first race of a Nascar season. It was also for all the marbles, the Daytona 500 was not.

As a New Englander I’m torn on this whole police thing at NHMS. I dispise Bruton for everything he stands for but if he’s getting screwed by the police, he has every right to do what he’s doing. If he’s just trying to save a few bucks I think the bad press he gets would be worth giving these blue collar cops some overtime money. After all, who ends up suffering if police protection is terrible at the track, or if Bruton selfishly decided to move a race. The race fans of course, and we know he’s all about making them happy, right? Something tells me that would be a bad move on Brutons part.

NHMS sells more tickets than Kentucky would and I don’t think Nascar would allow Mr. Magoo to take a race out of a huge market like Boston either.

Maybe he could recoup some of the money by not bringing the stupid ferris wheel to the track that no one cares about.

Doug In Washington (State)
06/23/2010 02:15 PM
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Well, at least one thing changed- PJ Jones isn’t going to Start and Park Robby Gordon’s car. Bobby Labonte will drive instead after departing the S&P TRG team, and the claim is he will run the whole race.

Richard in N.C.
06/23/2010 02:22 PM
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Another classic example of the depths to which what might once have been called journalism has fallen. Get it first, get it read, and get it sort of close – facts and accuracy just complicate things. Randy L. made statements Tuesday that you could have read or heard and referenced if you cared at all about making some effort to be accurate or fair – but it might not have been as sensational, or maybe you have a grudge against Randy.

midasmicah
06/23/2010 02:27 PM
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The Danica media circus brings to mind an Elton John song……the b*tch is back.

Bill B
06/23/2010 03:21 PM
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VolcanoNacho???
So??? We weren’t talking about Jr were we? We were talking about Danica. I didn’t know you wanted to join in the conversation Mr Helper.
Yes, the same argument can be made about Jr, although he does have a few more accomplishments (win wise) that he can list. Still, your point is well taken. Jr’s hype and fanbase is greater than his on-track performance would support for any other driver not named Earnhardt.
Having said that, it does nothing to lessen the truth of my original statement regarding Danica.

@Dan's Mom
06/23/2010 03:36 PM
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@Dan’s mom.

What accomplishments? Danica has done nothing of significance since coming over. NOTHING. If her name was Dan Patrick (not that Dan Patrick) she’d be lucky to run USAR. All hype. 34th every week puts her on par with Robert Richardson and Eric McClure.

VolcanoNacho
06/23/2010 04:38 PM
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I am just pointing out that NASCAR fans openly support one driver (who has very little talent) simply based upon their name recognition, but get offended when it is assumed that they will do the same to a different driver. Sounds like the definition of hypocritical to me.

Note: I am “assuming” for the sake of this comment that Danica will flop in NASCAR. I, personally, do not believe that will be the case.

DansMom
06/23/2010 05:23 PM
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Dan’s Mom

- Did you just make a comment to yourself… I’m confused.

Marybeth
06/23/2010 06:48 PM
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Danica did well in ARCA & I think that she might do well to think about running ARCA this yr., and NW next year.

steve-o
06/23/2010 07:02 PM
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If Danica was serious about Nascar I would think that she would have tested extensively instead of going on vacation or selling perfume. She is destined for Olympic Class Mediocrity.

pepper
06/23/2010 07:14 PM
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I have never read a writer who gets so much pleasure in other people’s misfortune. You never have a kind word about anyone. You may think you are informing the fans. You. Are. Not. Are you this negative about everything you do? Don’t bother telling me to stop reading anything you write. I can handle that all by myself.

wingcars6970
06/23/2010 07:51 PM
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Pot is either legal or “semi-legal” in most of the free world these days and even Presidents have admitted trying it. It’s not Meth, crack or heroin…but it is on the Nascar list….some would argue that alcohol is as bad or worse. I like Randy – I hope this doesn’t wreck decades of hard work on his part.

mkrcr
06/23/2010 08:27 PM
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OMG,I just found out that LaJoie smoked that evil weed. Shouldn’t he be in prison for 8 years or more? He violated more than NA$CAR’s drug policy, he broke the law with America’s War on Drugs. Gimme a friggin’ break. He was spotting for Christ’s sake. And seven days later. I’m sure he would have just stumbled right up to his post and nearly fall over the rail. Get real. How ‘bout we all gather round and watch ‘ole Brian piss in a cup. I’m sure he’d Sprint for that one. BTW, I don’t even smoke the stuff but know how much bullsh*t this is.

Bad Wolf
06/24/2010 01:07 AM
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Maybe if DW took a few hits before “Showtime” the Fox broadcast would be more bearable.

shoeman
06/24/2010 10:01 AM
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I hope that Randy only has a short suspension. I am sure he has learned what a foolish mistake he has made. And I wish him the best of luck with his career in NASCAR.

JerseyGirl
06/24/2010 10:44 AM
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Dan’s Mom — I’m a female – I don’t hate Danica because she’s female but because of how she’s used her gender to promote herself. Sex still sells doesn’t it?

She doesn’t represent a figurehead into NASCAR for me — Janet Guthrie did that a long time ago — with Danica, her brains aren’t her most famous attribute.

offthepace
06/24/2010 01:17 PM
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Only Brian Scott and perhaps Trevor Bayne have stood out as possible future talents in this sport? REALLY?!? What about Justin Allgaier? Michael Annett anyone? How about Aric Almirola or Timothy Peters?(I know they run trucks but still). I could go on…

laxbro25
06/26/2010 07:56 PM
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Are you guys stupid? There is a rule in Nascar that you can’t smoke pot. Who cares how harmless it is. Randy is a moron for smoking it three days before a drug test.

 

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