Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In the driver's seat

Bobby Stitchick is barely old enough to drive, but that didn't stop him from climbing into the cockpit of a Sprint Cup stock car before the Daytona 500. No, he wasn't preparing to drive the No. 19 car in the Great American Race, but instead he was celebrating a prize package he won from Best Buy.

Bobby is a 16-year-old junior at Waynesburg (Pa.) Central High School and a huge Elliot Sadler fan, so he wagered $1,000 on an online auction at Best Buy's Web site. Each week, a winner receives race memorabilia, watches that weekend's race on a big screen television with a party for seven friends and has a replica of Sadler's car delivered to his front door. The $1,000 donation Bobby raised by lifeguarding last summer will be sent to the "Teens for Tots" charity, which is associated with "Toys for Tots."

Bobby recently spoke with Sadler over the phone and asked the driver what the most important safety devices are in racing. Sadler responded with some of the most recent safety advancements this decade - the HANS device and soft walls. Coincidentally, Bobby is writing a racing safety report for his senior project and will include Sadler's comments in the final edition. The conversation left quite an impression on the young man.

"He's my favorite sports hero," Bobby said. "I was like any kid getting to talk to my superstar."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Edwards wins Auto Club 500

Nearly 24 hours after the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway was slated to begin, Carl Edwards passed Jimmie Johnson with 13 laps left to take the checkered flag and mercifully end an incredibly long race weekend.

Edwards and Johnson battled side-by-side around the track for two laps before Edwards took the lead down the backstretch and pulled away. The winner led 64 of 250 laps. Johnson had taken the lead on the final round of pit stops and finished second. The race ended under caution when Dale Jarrett spun and crashed in Turn 4 on the final lap.

Top 10 finishers:
1. Carl Edwards
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Jeff Gordon
4. Kyle Busch
5. Matt Kenseth
6. Martin Truex Jr.
7. Tony Stewart
8. Kevin Harvick
9. Kasey Kahne
10. Ryan Newman

The race finished under sunny skies - a stark difference than how the event began the previous day. The start of the race Sunday afternoon was delayed 2 1/2 hours after rain showers soaked the track Sunday morning. Then groundwater underneath the track began seeping onto the racing surface, causing a frightening crash on lap 21 involving Casey Mears, Sam Hornish Jr., and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Racing resumed an hour later after crews worked to dry the track, but the cars were halted again on lap 87 when rain moved into the area.

Why NASCAR officials waited until 2 a.m. EST today to announce the race would not be restarted for another 11 hours is puzzling. It was a decision that anyone watching on television at home could have predicted by 9:30 p.m. after looking at the soaked pavement. The afternoon broadcast and Sunday's debacle was anything but a ratings boon for FOX.

The rain made a long weekend even longer for the drivers and crews as they prepare this week for another trip west to Las Vegas. The use of the versatile Car of Today could possibly ease the preparation problems by using the California car at Vegas. The delay also bumped the running of the Nationwide Series race until after the Sprint Cup event.

[Updated at 3:25 p.m.]

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Is the sun setting on California Speedway?

Interesting opinion piece that appeared on as the series prepares to race the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway. The column by Ryan McGee likens the struggles at the speedway to the demise of Ontario Speedway a quarter-century ago.

This is a substantial problem for NASCAR with declining attendance figures and dwindling interest in the region. The track built in the suburbs of Los Angeles was supposed to connect the rich and famous of Hollywood to the southern roots of racing. The decision to add a second race at California in 2005 only highlighted the need for the track to succeed.

It simply hasn't happened. Not with boring racing and especially not with thousands of empty seats slapping NASCAR in the face lap after lap. Now it's time to give back at least one of California's races to tracks such as Rockingham and Darlington. That might be easier said than done, however, because the track is owned by International Speedway Corp. - a subsidiary of NASCAR.

Regardless of the solution, McGee's column highlights what many long-time fans have been thinking: NASCAR has wandered too far from its past. It's not too late to bring races back to the southeast where the sport's fanbase is strongest and grandstands always full.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Open wheel reunification

It appears IndyCar and Champ Car are on the verge of reuniting after the split in 1996. The news should be greeted with cheers and relief from the open wheel community, but I take the bah-humbug approach because it's 12 years too late. The split divided open wheel drivers, teams, sponsors and fans.

I enjoyed watching CART in the late 1990s when Alex Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser, Greg Moore and Paul Tracy were mixing it up. The series lost steam at the turn of the century when CART titans Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi hopped to the IRL in order to race at Indy and compete full-time in the IndyCar Series. With the driving talent split between both series, neither could claim a legitimate champion.

Meanwhile, NASCAR took advantage as its rating and popularity soared. Now some of the best from Indy are driving south to Sprint Cup, including Dario Franchitti, last year's IndyCar champ. It's a good thing that open wheel racing will be under one roof, but it's too little too late, in my mind.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dish's 'Hot Pass' a hot ticket

Watching racing on television will never be the same after tuning-in to Sunday's Daytona 500 with the aid of DirectTV's 'Hot Pass' - the dish television package that basically puts the viewers on the pitbox.

I don't want this blog to become a shill for the dish, but the 'Hot Pass' gives fans an in-depth view of four race drivers and their team communications. Some conversations were interesting, others were informative and one driver was downright hilarious.

In the beginning of the race, I turned to the channel that featured Dale Earnhardt and was amazed by the view from his in-car camera as the cars bounced all over the track. But it was what came from his mouth that was brow-raising: Dale Jr. is a cussing machine. The most humorous exchange came with his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., as the No. 88 was trying to draft with a six-car pack. However, Eury was more concerned about the water temperature in the engine, and began badgering Junior to tell him the reading. After a few moments, Junior finally keyed the radio and snapped, "The temperature's fine! I'm trying to draft with these (expletive) here!"

The dish also allowed me to eavesdrop on Jeff Gordon when the team pulled the hood on the No. 24 while in the pits. Although the car exited pit road with no apparent problems, crew chief Steve Letarte told Gordon to take another lap before bringing it to the garage. He indicated it would take about 20 laps to fix the car before the FOX commentators even knew there was a problem.

The most shocking development was moments after David Regan crashed into teammate Matt Kenseth. The No. 17 car turned around on pit road and Kenseth feverishly searched for a path to the garage area. He couldn't find it and pleaded to his spotter and crew to direct him there. He was greeted by only silence as crew members scampered to their garage stall to prepare fixing the car. The usually unflappable Kenseth screamed, "Somebody talk to me!", and the spotter immediately responded.

The package allows fans to focus on four drivers with cameras following each driver continuously around the track. It also scans the radios to allows viewers to spy on 14 other drivers while watching the race broadcast. Even thousands of miles away from Daytona, I knew what was happening on the track before the fans a dozen feet from the track. Pretty cool.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Daytona 500 review

Despite a dominating performance by the Gibbs and Hendrick teams in Speedweeks, it was two Penske Dodges that roared to the lead on the final lap of the Daytona 500 golden's anniversary.

Ryan Newman was pushed down the backstretch by his teammate Kurt Busch as the two powered in front of Tony Stewart to capture a jaw-dropping victory and deliver the first Daytona 500 win for owner Roger Penske.

Wow. Can anyone honestly say they saw this one coming?

The Gibbs and Hendrick cars turned Daytona's high banks into their own playground last week by winning the Shootout, the pole and both of Thursday's qualifying races. On Sunday, Kyle Busch led the most laps and was in position to win on the final restart. But Busch couldn't hook up with Stewart on the last lap and the pair were helpless to stop the momentum from the Penske cars.

Toyota clearly had the superior car and engine package for the 500. Near the mid-point of the race, Denny Hamlin pulled out of the draft and drove to the lead with no help from behind. That was impressive.

The performance by Hendrick Motorsports was disappointing as two cars crashed, one had mechanical problems and Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't pit for tires twice near the end and finished ninth. Junior blamed the loss on poor drafting decisions at the end, but the question remains why tires weren't taken on two occasions at a track where a good handling car is paramount?

But for Newman and Kurt Busch, the victory couldn't be sweeter. Newman won for the first time since September 2005 and Busch stuck a dagger in Stewart after more than a few on-track scuffles in recent years.

The Daytona 500 winner said the help Busch gave him down the backstretch was "a push from heaven" and a much different result than in 2003. But one must now wonder if Daytona is becoming a personal hell for Tony Stewart.

Lugnuts and spare tires
-The pre-race show was a little too long and some of the singing acts were bizarre for a NASCAR event, but what a great sight to see the former 500 champions lined up on stage. And what better way to start the race than with Richard Petty and his trademark smile in the flag stand to drop the green. Truly a special moment for NASCAR fans.

-Jimmie Johnson crashed and finished 27th in his bid to become the first pole sitter to win the 500 since Dale Jarrett did it in 2000. Michael Waltrip also started on the front row, but was never a factor and finished 29th.

-Toyota dominated the race, but it was Dodge that stole the show with five Chargers finishing in the top-10. Robby Gordon, who just last month switched from Ford to Dodge, came home an impressive eighth and former Cup champion Bobby Labonte finished 11th.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Top-5 stories in 2008

Speedweeks continues with today’s running of the twin qualifying races to set the field for Sunday’s Daytona 500. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the top stories of the season.

5: NASCAR Sprints into ’08
The long-rumored sponsor change from Nextel to Sprint finally happened in the off-season. Nextel did well promoting the sport after becoming the title series in 2004, so little should change with Sprint.

The biggest problem the change poses is an occasional slip by a driver during his post-race interview. Does anyone else still accidentally call the series Winston Cup every now and then?

4: Gibbs trades in his Chevy for a Toyota

This was one of the more surprising moves during the off-season. Joe Gibbs Racing had two drivers in the Chase for the Cup and won four races with Chevy in 2007. JGR was offered a treasure to switch to Camry despite Toyota’s miserable season last year.

However, Gibbs isn’t a stranger to changing manufacturers despite success with his current brand. In 1997, his team switched from Chevy over to struggling Pontiac. The team flourished and was dominant in the late 1990s before winning Wintston Cups with Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002.

Incredibly, the year after Stewart’s championship, the team switched back to Chevy and didn’t miss a beat. Stewart continued to be one of the circuit’s elite drivers and won the Cup again in 2005. All eyes will be on Gibbs to see if his team can become the flagship for Toyota after it suffered through a forgettable rookie season.

3: Car of Today arrives
The COT had a smooth transition in 2007, although it was used mostly at tracks smaller than a mile in length. Now we’ll see how it handles every Sprint Cup track.

If last week’s Budweiser Shootout is any indication, we better hang on for a wild ride. The racing last Saturday was good, but the cars appeared to be riding rough and difficult to handle. Amazingly, Jimmie Johnson raced with the car he plans to take to Richmond in the summer, a nod to NASCAR’s attempts to save money on racecars.

2: A Nationwide dilemma
The Cup drivers’ dominances in the Nationwide Series (formerly known as Busch) this decade has become a disgrace. The dwindling talent coming up from Nationwide into Cup is an indication of how problematic this issues is becoming. It’s now time for NASCAR to correct this problem.

The series dabbled with the idea of not issuing the regulars from Cup points in the races, which would eliminate them from a championship run. But that would do little to stop them from invading the minor-league series.

NASCAR must take a hard-nosed approach by restricting the number of races Cup regulars can compete. If a driver is in the top-35 in the Cup standings the previous year, he should be allowed to compete in no more than five Nationwide races. A Cup rookie may compete in all races to gain more experience. Something must be done now before the pool of talented drivers dries up.

1: An extra 8 for Little E in 2008
Easily the most talked about story in 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left his late father’s company in favor of Hendrick Motorsports, the powerhouse of NASCAR. This will be a true test for the sport’s most popular driver, as he’ll no longer have excuses for not winning races or championships.

DEI blew an incredible number of engines last year – a problem Hendrick doesn’t seem to have. Junior will have excellent equipment each week and must take advantage of this opportunity. He’ll never be The Intimidator, but he must at least prove he’s not riding his daddy’s coattails anymore.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Now that you’ve found your way to Jonesin’ for Speed, let me tell you about myself and what I hope this blog will become. I am a newspaper reporter for the Observer-Reporter and cover municipal government in the northern part of Washington County, Pa. But my passion outside of work is motorsports.

I’ve followed racing since attending the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in 1993 and instantly became hooked. As NASCAR fans can attest, you never truly understand the sport until you go to a race.

At that year’s Firecracker 400, Ernie Irvan sat on the pole and Dale Earnhardt won the race, although sadly, neither is still racing. Irvan suffered major injuries Aug. 20, 1999, after a crash at Michigan – his second near-fatal accident at the track in five years. Earnhardt died Feb. 18, 2001, when he crashed in the final turn of the Daytona 500 (it’s hard to imagine he’s been gone for seven years).

NASCAR has changed drastically over the past decade and not always for the better. This blog will rant about those changes and what’s happening during the season. This blog also will cover the weekly events at the area’s short tracks. I encourage you to e-mail me your thoughts on the racing season, tips for stories at the local tracks or column ideas.

Thanks for visiting and enjoy.