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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Just Thinking About… Lean Times, Junior as the Future of HMS & Making a Violation Go Away

With just three races left on the schedule, there have been complaints of a lack of on-track action in some of the Chase races. There’s been no dearth of action off the track, however. In fact, there were so many interesting storylines this week, I couldn’t pick just one. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I have the attention span of a kindergartener on pixie stix. Something like that. In any case, here is my take on some of the recent happenings in NASCAR.

I know it’s Halloween, but… the economy is scarier and it’s hitting NASCAR hard. Some sources have as many as eight Cup teams currently racing being gone next year. NASCAR insists they won’t have any trouble filling a 43-car field, but do the math. With about 45 teams running a full or almost full schedule, take away eight and you’re left with just 37. And yet, NASCAR continues to make decisions, from scheduling to testing and beyond, that hurt the smaller teams. The way I see it, NASCAR should be doing everything to help these cars succeed, or they won’t need franchising because there will be nobody left but the big teams. That’s fine if you don’t want to fill the field every week.

Speaking of the toll the economy is taking on NASCAR, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t secure sponsorship for two teams at JR Motorsports for 2009. In fact, Junior doesn’t even have one full-time sponsor, and speculation is that he’ll have to close one team, more than likely that of development driver Landon Cassill. That’s too bad, but you can’t run two race teams on one part time sponsor. Or you can, but ask Bill Davis how that works out. It isn’t pretty in many ways.

Speaking of Dale Jr., does anyone else think the writing is on the wall for the future of Hendrick Motorsports? When Rick Hendrick merged his Nationwide Series operation wit JR Motorsports, could it have been both a test and a training ground? Junior has certainly made a success of the team, with Brad Keselowski the top Nationwide regular this year. And do the math. Hendrick isn’t immortal, even if it sometimes seems so. His son and nieces, once the logical choices to take over HMS, are gone. Jeff Gordon has said he doesn’t want to run the day-to-day operations of a top-tier Cup team. Jimmie Johnson hasn’t shown much interest on that front, either. But Junior is a different story – he’s always wanted to own and run teams when his career behind the wheel is over, and it became clear that that was never in the cards at DEI. At Hendrick, Junior has the chance to learn from the best and someday inherit an empire.

Did anyone else notice how NASCAR can make a failed technical inspection go away if they so desire? After the Pep Boys Auto 500 last week, the rear-end housing of the No. 18 was confiscated because the measurements in post-race tech were beyond the maximum offset mandated earlier this year. NASCAR took the part back to their R&D center for “further testing,” and later in the week, found the part to mysteriously be within legal limits and issued no penalties. I’ve never heard of NASCAR giving 24 hours for a part to settle (they have given something like 30 minutes after a race if a car’s height is off for the car to “settle” and re-measured before officially failing the car) and then using electronic measurements on machines that were different than those used at the track. The cynic in me wonders if they are going to do that with everything that is a little “off” after a race, or just when they want the failed tech to quietly go away?

The cynic in me also wonders how different things would have been if the car in question was a Hendrick Chevy or a Roush Ford.

Speaking of Jack Roush, he had an idea about improving the Chase. Roush wants NASCAR to throw out the points from each team’s worst finish, counting only each team’s best nine Chase races. My suggestion to Mr. Roush (who certainly wasn’t complaining a points runaway when Matt Kenseth was trouncing the field back in ’03, eventually the final straw in the creation of the Chase in the first place) would be to stop worrying about how to improve the Chase to keep Johnson from winning and start worrying about improving his teams so they can beat Johnson on track. Pucker up, ya’ll, those are sure some sour grapes.

Since Johnson came up, I’ve heard a lot recently about how Johnson’s success can be attributed in large part to his team, headed up by mad genius crew chief Chad Knaus. To a degree, that’s true, just as Gordon enjoyed his best success with Ray Evernham, and Dale Earnhardt with Andy Petree and so on. However, we are in an era of racing where teams and the way they communicate and operate on pit road is the difference between first place and midpack over the course of a season. So, while it’s fair to say that Johnson most certainly does rely on his team (and his considerable skill in communicating the car to them) more than some drivers from back in the day, it’s decidedly unfair to hold that against Johnson.

Finally, with all the talk about rain and qualifying and what to do about it, the best comment I heard on the subject all week came from a fan – and the worst from a professional journalist. In the comments to our Mirror Driving column this week, Don left a comment that the solution was simple – use speeds from whatever practice session runs first to determine the lineup. While I’m not convinced the system needs changing, this is the best idea I’ve heard so far as it’s still performance based and therefore a far better idea than using the luck of the draw. It also wouldn’t take away coveted practice time and wouldn’t require the garage to open in the wee hours of the morning to accommodate it. It encourages the teams to work to be fast off the truck. Not a half bad idea, Don!

On the flip side, I read an article discussing the subject on Thursday and one writer’s argument for changing qualifying when it rains makes no sense. The writer, who shall (somewhat reluctantly) remain nameless, made the following comment in favor of a flexible schedule to allow for qualifying at another time during the weekend. “I believe more flexibility could be added. I mean, Chase drivers need to have a chance to gain some advantage in qualifying.” Huh? How can the Chasers get more of an advantage than starting in front of the field with nary a yahoo out to prove something in the mix to play the spoiler? If they qualify on time, some of the Chasers could wind up mired mid-pack on back for much of the race. How does that give them an advantage?

It’s hard to believe that the season is nearly over. It seems like just yesterday, it was just starting. There was more possibility then than anticipation; now the anticipation of either a historical championship or a historical comeback outweighs the possibility of a young season. Nature of the beast, I guess. Now, where are those pixie stix?