NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: My Winter of NASCAR Discontent – With a Little Amusement Tossed In

With Daytona around the corner, the racing world is picking up speed, and with that comes a whole slew of questions – but not too many answers. So after a long and eventful offseason, it’s time to dust off the things that made it notable for me…

First up, I have an issue with the timing of NASCAR’s approval of the new Ford engine. While it is true that Toyota’s racing engines are a whole separate species of animal, and the Chevrolet R07 was designed with an eye toward the Cup Series, I find this one more troubling. It’s not so much because it deviates from the “stock” small-block engines the sport once mandated, but rather because of one feature in particular that’s reportedly far more advanced than its counterparts.

By all accounts, the new Ford FR9’s cooling system is advanced enough that teams will be able to run with significantly more tape on the nose… thus giving them more downforce than the competition. Usually, that wouldn’t be a long-term issue, because the other makes would come up with setups that could compensate – they always do. But this year, they won’t have the time. The testing ban, while it won’t completely curtail adjustments, will significantly impair the amount of time even the larger teams can get on the intermediate tracks – the ones that require the most downforce to begin with. They would have to travel to Texas World Speedway to really come close to practicing on any type of 1.5-miler they run – and that’s a trip that all but the Hendricks, Gibbs and Childresses of the racing world can’t afford to make on the regular basis they need to.

If NASCAR wanted to level the playing field for the smaller teams, the introduction of a radically new engine for any make should have been put on hold until after the testing ban is lifted. Simply put, the moratorium on testing should have included a moratorium on any significant changes on the cars or under the hood. There is a bit of irony to all this, though; those same tracks where Ford will likely gain their aerodynamic advantage from this new piece are those hardest on engines. Since a dynamometer can’t always reproduce race conditions, if these engines are less than reliable, it will actually be Ford who will become the victim themselves.

Switching gears, could things at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing (sorry, but I can no longer think of that operation as anything but Chip and Dale Racing) be in any more of a shambles? First, they can’t afford to run Aric Almirola for a full season in the third car; but suddenly, they will run that full-time and a fourth car for a partial schedule, too? That car will consist of John Andretti – with rumors of an alliance with Front Row Motorsports following behind him? Really? That’s the best they could do?

To me, it seems far more sensible to funnel both partial sponsorships to Almirola and give him maximum support. Instead, they’re spreading themselves thin. If this chaos is happening because there is a power struggle, and neither Teresa Earnhardt nor Chip Ganassi is willing to give up one of their own car numbers to benefit the team as a whole, perhaps they need to revisit the reason for this deal in the first place. And I still can’t decide if Max Siegel’s departure is a bane or a blessing – because I can’t decide if he was a driving force behind what was DEI or whether he led the team on a drive down the path to destruction.

Which brings me to the newly-formed Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM – cute, but it’s been done before, most recently by Rudd Performance Motorsports). Gillett Evernham Motorsports was a disaster even before they sucked Petty Enterprises into the vortex. George Gillett is certainly willing to toss money at his program, but he doesn’t seem to want the advice of anybody who has been in NASCAR racing for more than a handful of years. He even drove Ray Evernham (say what you want, the man knows racecars like nobody else) out of a day-to-day leadership role, and does anyone really believe that Richard Petty will have any involvement in that place beyond his name on the door and the occasional meet ‘n’ greet?

Finally, does anyone else find the it sad – and perhaps very telling – that in the end, the cause of the 2007 airplane crash that killed five people, including the husband of Lesa France Kennedy, was ultimately caused by carelessness on the part of NASCAR’s own aviation department and their failure to properly maintain the aircraft despite a pilot’s report of previous engine issues? The incident seems like a microcosm of NASCAR as a whole – all too willing to sacrifice quality to save or grab a few dollars. Unfortunately, in this case, it wasn’t merely race fans getting the shaft in the form of mediocre competition; it was innocent victims paying far too dearly, both in the air and on the ground.

Meanwhile, the defending Sprint Cup champion (again) is a great driver, but he’s also a bit of a wreck magnet – off the NASCAR track, that is. Jimmie Johnson followed up his first Sprint Cup championship by taking a header off the roof of a golf cart and breaking his wrist. Two years later, his encore for the third was to cut his finger with a knife while trying to thread a cooling tube through the pocket of his uniform – while he was already in the uniform. The cut was deep enough to damage a tendon and a nerve, requiring surgery to fix. It won’t affect his driving come Daytona, but it certainly humanizes Johnson, who is known for being anything but unconventional.

Other than Johnson’s unfortunate confrontation with his kitchen utensil, though, the Rolex 24 at Daytona was actually a hell of a race – the top two were separated by a few car lengths after 24 hours of competition. And as the checkered flag flew, it was cool to see David Donohue bring it home 40 years after his late father, Mark.

Yes, it has certainly been an interesting offseason full of surprises. It certainly doesn’t look as though the news is over, either – there is plenty to think about as the teams begin to pack their bags for Daytona. Now, whether NASCAR ends up traveling easy in 2009 or becoming little more than excess baggage remains to be seen. I’m steeling myself for the latter – but hoping that NASCAR can surprise me one more time.

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