The Frontstretch: Deep NASCAR Thoughts From The Professor Of The Obvious by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday August 12, 2008

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Deep NASCAR Thoughts From The Professor Of The Obvious

The Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday August 12, 2008

 

Well, it’s another fairly slow news cycle for the second week of August. Silly Season has quieted down a bit, although we’re all pretty much waiting to hear Ryan Newman make it official that he will be driving for Tony Stewart — and of course, we’re still waiting with baited breath to hear where Casey Mears will end up next. So, with nothing new in the pipeline, I could have gone to the well and written another Kyle-Busch-Is-Pretty-Good piece after his eighth win of the season; but instead, we’ll explore a few random thoughts and observations that are dancing through my head as the season is just over 60 percent complete.

Kyle Busch is pretty good. OK, if not an article, I at least have to scrawl this out for posterity’s sake. Busch has eight wins with 14 races remaining, and he’s won at half of the remaining tracks on the schedule, meaning his sweep of the road courses this season could very well be joined with sweeps at Talladega, Dover, and Atlanta as well. It is entirely plausible (although I would consider it unlikely) that he could tie, or potentially break, the Modern Era single season win record shared by Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon. For Busch to do that in this era of racing — where parity and homogenization has been taken to levels not seen outside of a milking facility — would be nothing short of incredible. And no matter what happens from here, what Busch has done with his new team in six months is nothing short of remarkable.

Even the most ardent Busch Basher will begrudgingly admit that he can drive; and it just isn’t the car doing all the work. Truth be told, main rival Carl Edwards is going to have to get on quite a roll if he is going to close the wins gap and have a shot at Busch once the playoffs begin. Edwards said that with the Chase format the way it is, the bonus points don’t mean a whole lot because of how close the field is anyway. I take that as little more than a half-hearted effort to engage in psychological warfare with Busch; which, if you look how well that served Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon this weekend, Edwards might be better off avoiding that altogether.

Marcos Ambrose – Mr. Personality. Some longtime NASCAR fans lament the loss of NASCAR’s identity. Namely, they miss drivers from the South with magnetic personalities and genuineness; everyday guys who could do extraordinary things, that were humble and soft-spoken while speaking their mind without fear of retribution. Well, if that is what you’re searching for in a driver… look no further than Marcos Ambrose.

You can’t get much farther south than Tasmania (hemisphere, schmemisphere … are we splitting hairs here, Donny?) and that blue and red rig sporting the STP oval on the hood sure has drawn a lot of interest in recent weeks — as well as that driver behind the wheel, and for good reason. Early returns are that Ambrose seems like the kind of guy who is just happy to be here, and is going to make the most of whatever opportunity he’s got. Having made his mark in the Australian V8 Supercar Series (i.e., “real” stock cars…) he has won over millions of fans here in the United States with both his off-track persona and on-track skills. Clearly, Ambrose is most formidable on the road courses, as he garnered his first win there this past weekend at Watkins Glen and was the car to beat the last two years in Montreal. Moreover, on Sunday, the Cup rookie was able to pilot the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford to a third-place finish, their best since Ricky Rudd’s runner-up performance in Infineon in 2005.

Ambrose also ran well at Indianapolis two weeks earlier in only his second career Cup start, qualifying on time before steering his No. 47 JTG Racing Ford to a surprising 22nd-place finish. Typically running in the mid-teens in the Nationwide Series, it appears that should Ambrose ever get a chance to compete in top-tier equipment, he would be the most compelling regular within that division. For a series in need of both an identity and some personalities, it’s hard to find one more engaging or marketable than Ambrose these days; unfortunately for them, he’ll be off to Cup in just three short months.

What’s going on at Hall of Fame Racing? Hall of Fame Racing’s first foray into the meat grinder that is Sprint Cup was with Terry Labonte and Tony Raines in 2006; the fledgling operation ended up 26th in owner’s points, and qualified for each and every race with both those drivers behind the wheel. The next season, HoF improved to 25th in owner points while suffering three DNFs — but once again, zero DNQs. However, despite the positive outlook, Raines was then replaced by J.J. Yeley who — although no stranger to a body shop — is also plenty capable as a driver.

J.J. Yeley was the latest poor performer in Hall of Fame Racing equipment, leading to his release last week. In three full-time seasons on the Cup tour, HoF has produced as many Top 10 finishes as DNQs — four.

But that marriage supposedly made in heaven — Yeley grew up in Arizona, the perfect match for new co-owners involved with the Arizona Diamondbacks — dissolved fast. The team — which is currently 38th in owner’s points with virtually no hope of cracking the Top 35 — released Yeley last week, initiating the proceedings with the common “courtesy” of a text message. P.J. Jones was hired as a one-race replacement for Watkins Glen, finishing 37th, before unseasoned rookie Brad Coleman takes the helm starting at Michigan next week. The new hire is a former Joe Gibbs Racing protege; ironic, considering my question is when will this team realize that they are Hall of Fame Racing, and not, in fact, JGR itself?

Editor’s Note: A spokesman for Hall of Fame Racing maintains that text messaging was a consistent way to reach Yeley when he was at his beach house in North Carolina, and that the actual firing occurred in person — with both Hall of Fame owners present.

True, the stats haven’t been so great, but I have a hard time believing that HoF’s drivers are the reason why the cars are slow. Instead, it could very well be that this is a the third-tier, single-car race team and has been since its inception. Maybe, just maybe, the drivers are getting all out of the equipment that they can.

Johnny Benson had better win a Truck title. Johnny Benson’s last seven races have produced four wins (three consecutive), a second, and a third, yet he still leads Ron Hornaday by a scant 45 points heading to Bristol in two weeks.

The Craftsman Truck Series’ Most Popular Driver is also probably its best and, should Benson stave off the bad luck that seemingly was becoming the hallmark of quite an accomplished career, could very well win his first Truck Series title in 2008. Such a reward would look well at home next to his 1995 Busch Series championship, 1996 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award, and his trophy for winning the 2002 Pop Secret 400 at Rockingham.

How great was it watching the Nationwide cars race in the rain? That was some of the most interesting racing in Montreal that I’ve seen in NASCAR. Ever. Period. Some guys had wipers, while some did not — and paid an ugly price. Cars rammed into each other under caution, some poked around, while still others hustled it in the wet and started making good time. Some drivers thought it was good fun — others were disgusted.

What I saw was a perfect example of what it looks like driving in Michigan during the winter. Some people can hack it… others can’t. Some are prepared with that one big wiper and defoggers… some aren’t. Isn’t that what racing is supposed to be about, anyway? He who goes the fastest and is most daring wins. And hey; at least the victory wasn’t decided by fuel mileage and a flurry of competition yellows because the tires were crumbling.

Why does every team put out the same press release when it changes drivers? Would it be too much to ask for a little honesty? When a driver change occurs, you can pretty much mouth the words that are being said as whichever talking head reads the press release: “We at (insert team name here) along with (insert driver to-be-canned here), have decided it would be in our mutual interests to pursue other opportunities. We wish (driver who was just text messaged the good news) the best with his future plans.”

I mean, really. Why not just say, “We had to get rid of this guy because he kept crashing cars, and the sponsor was going to go with this other team because their new driver has really nice hair and enunciates.”

There are probably a dozen other questions that have came to mind recently that I could have tackled. Such as, if the Car of Tomorrow is so safe, why did Bobby Labonte get out of the car in pain at Watkins Glen? Or, why do teams replace their normal driver with a road course specialist who isn’t any better than the driver he is replacing? And, is Sam Hornish, Jr. really going to stick it out for another year in Cup; and if he does, can Roger Penske afford it?

This is all just scratching the surface. Luckily, I have a Frontstretch Newsletter piece that comes out in a few days, and can astonish all of you with the answers to all those questions then.

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Steven
08/12/2008 09:46 AM
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On the COT safety:

Bobby may have gotten out of the car in pain, but he wasn’t injured. He’s also getting up there in the years, and I’m betting he feels those hits harder now than he did when he was a young buck.

Witness David Gilliland, taking more and harder shots than even Labonte in that wreck, and he got out of the car just fine.

mkrcr
08/13/2008 08:46 PM
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Ambrose is awesome! Love his attitude of loving being here. Just hope Brian’s claws don’t dig too deep when he gets to Cup. That series can kill anybody’s attitude.
Of all the crossover drivers, he’s the most qualified for the sport. V8 Supercars are beasts. Can’t wait till he figures out those ovals. I have a feeling that won’t be long. I know I’m dreaming, but how great would it be if he helped the Wood brothers back to the prominence they once held?

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