Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jarrett behind the mic

Dale Jarrett continued his father’s success on the race track by winning 32 race and a Cup championship during his storied career. With that racing career now over, he once again follows his famous father to the broadcasting booth to begin commentating full-time for ESPN at Texas next weekend.

But don’t call this a retirement for the younger Jarrett after driving in his final Cup points race at Bristol last week. He’s not completely walking away from the sport, although he certainly will have more time to golf. But you’ll still find him in the garage area each weekend as he prepares to be the color commentator alongside Jerry Punch and Andy Petree.

“That’s pretty much as much demanding on my time as what driving the car was,” Jarrett told reporters during a March 11 conference call. He’s talking about the season’s final stretch when he will broadcast 17 Cup and Nationwide races during the same weekend.

His broadcasting premier came last year as he called a few Busch races. This season, Jarrett pushes Rusty Wallace out of the booth and expects to transition smoothly with the all-Tar Heel broadcasting crew.

“It’s really fun to sit up and be able to look at the races in a totally different atmosphere and get a different perspective of what’s really happening and how these guy go about doing what they do,” Jarrett said.

The emotions undoubtedly will be different for Jarrett when he sits behind the mic for that first Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis in July. His experiences behind the wheel are unsurpassed by many drivers and the crisp dialogue with Punch and Petree is refreshingly similar to the old ESPN crew of Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parson.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

This weekend's holiday gives the Cup guys their first break of the season as they gear up for Martinsville. Locally, two short tracks are preparing for the start of their seasons with testing coming up. Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway near Impreial and Motordrome Speedway in Smithton each will hold pre-season test sessions March 29.

The Whelen All-American Series cars hit Motordrome's paved track April 4 to begin the 22-race schedule with two additional 100-lap events sprinkled in during the summer. The dirt track season at PPMS begins the following night on April 5.

I hope to post season previews for both tracks later this week. Any comments or suggestions on what kind of local racing coverage you would like to see on this blog would be appreciated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What's wrong with Hendrick?

The start of the 2008 Sprint Cup season has been an unlikely struggle for Hendrick Motorsports drivers not named Earnhardt. The four teams that ripped off 18 victories last season and captured a second-straight championship, haven’t scored a win at tracks they normally dominate.

After Bristol, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fifth in points (91 laps led), Jimmie Johnson is 13th (91 laps), Jeff Gordon is 14th (93 lap) and Casey Mears is barely hanging on
at 33rd (0 laps).

In comparison, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch has led more laps (336) than all four of Hendrick’s drivers combined. Busch leads the points and is followed by Tony Stewart in seventh (286 laps led) and Denny Hamlin at 15th (130 laps led). It’s clear the Gibbs cars have more horsepower and could have won at least four races this year if not for mechanical problems and/or crashes.

Their start is similar to how Hendrick’s four teams began last year when Gordon was leading the points and finished in the top-10 four times. Johnson, by this point, had three wins and was third in the points. By contrast, Junior has been the lone bright spot this season with four top-10s.

Whether this is an early-season slump or a sign of things to come should be answered this weekend at Martinsville, where Johnson and Gordon fiercely battled for the win last year. It’s also a track where Hendrick has won eight of the last 10 races.

Hendrick 2008 finishes
Dale Earnhardt Jr. : 9th* -- 40th -- 2nd* -- 3rd* -- 5th

Jimmie Johnson : 27th* -- 2nd* -- 29th -- 13th -- 18th*

Jeff Gordon : 39th* -- 3rd* -- 35th* -- 5th* -- 11th

Casey Mears : 35th -- 42nd -- 13th -- 17th -- 42nd

* led a lap

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Childress sweeps Bristol

Jeff Burton blew by Denny Hamlin on the backstretch with less than two laps left as he recorded his 20th career win and all three Richard Childress Racing cars finished in the top-3 positions at the Food City 500.

A late-race crash between Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick fighting for second place brought the race to a green-white-checkers finish. Harvick went low in Turn 1, got loose and his car pushed Stewart into the wall. That allowed Burton to take second behind Hamlin going into the final two laps.

Hamlin got a good jump on the restart, but had some sort of fuel pressure problem on the backstretch as Burton, Harvick and Clint Bowyer drove past the No. 11 Camry. Burton has not won since last year at Texas.

A subdued Stewart was gracious in defeat, unlike his rant last week over the poor tires Goodyear brought to Atlanta.

"I thought I left him plenty of room, so I don't know," Stewart said of the incident with Harvick.

Food City 500 Top-10
1. Jeff Burton
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Clint Bowyer
4. Greg Biffle
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Kasey Kahne
8. Aric Almirola
9. David Gilliland
10. Matt Kenseth

Friday, March 14, 2008

So long, Dale

This Sunday’s race at Bristol marks the end of an era for NASCAR when Dale Jarrett retires following an incredible 21 full seasons of Cup and 32 wins. Between 1996 and 2001, Jarrett never finished lower than fifth in the points – a six-year streak that only Jimmie Johnson has matched in recent years. The highlight of his career, obviously, came in 1999 when he won the Winston Cup driving the No. 88 for Robert Yates.

That career is ending much like it began. He has struggled to make races since moving to Michael Waltrip Racing, just as he did in the beginning. Nevertheless, Jarrett will be remembered as one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

Top-5 Dale Jarrett moments
5. Jarrett raced Tony Stewart for his final Cup win -barring a victory this weekend - at the fall Talladega race in 2005. It had been nearly two years since he last won at Rockingham in 2003. Sensing it might be his last victory, he stopped his car on the front stretch, stood on the driver’s door and waved the checkered flag to the crowd.

4. Daytona 500 victories in 1996 and 2000 gave him three for his career. Jarrett debuted in the No. 88 car in '96 with new crew chief Todd Parrott and promptly beat Dale Earnhardt in the season opener. It was not the only time he victimized The Intimidator in the 500. That win catapulted the team into an incredible run over the next decade and secured Jarrett as a fan favorite. In 2000, Jarrett sat on the pole, won the Bud Shootout and then passed Johnny Benson in the closing laps to win his third 500.

3. Jarrett continued his stellar freshman season at Robert Yates Racing with a victory in the 1996 Brickyard 500. He out dueled teammate Ernie Irvan for a 1-2 RYR finish. Then in 1999, he won again there on his way to his championship.

2. He scored his first career win driving the famed No. 21 for the Wood Brothers as he barely held off a charging Davey Allison at the line. The image that sticks in my mind is the in-car camera showing Jarrett excitedly pumping his fist. Oh, and his prize money for that victory at Michigan in 1991: $74,150.

1. The most memorable victory of Jarrett’s career came less than two years later at Daytona. Driving for an upstart team owned by a future Hall of Fame football coach named Joe Gibbs, Jarrett weaved around Earnhardt on the final lap and held off his frantic pass attempts down the backstretch. What makes this win so special is that his father, Ned Jarrett, called the race with his smooth southern drawel. A classic that still brings chills down my spine as the normally objective commentator announced the final lap as a proud father.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Peach State Snoozer

Kyle Busch’s trip to victory lane in a Camry surely will stir more than a few NASCAR purists who have ripped the foreign automaker for daring to run in Spring Cup. Those people soon may have more to worry about since Gibb’s Toyotas have been stout in the first four races this year. Several more wins and a championship aren’t out of the question.

Besides Toyota’s breakthrough victory, though, the racing at Atlanta was a snooze. The most excitement came when Busch nearly slammed his car into the front stretch wall during the burnout. There weren’t many chances for the leaders to bunch up and race because of just a few debris cautions and routine Elliot Sadler spinouts. Drivers blamed the poor racing on Goodyear’s decision to use a harder tire. The cars fish-tailed coming out of Turn 4 on a lap-by-lap basis.

The second-place finisher, Tony Stewart, ripped the tires and Goodyear. He suggested the tire maker get out of the sport and welcomed a change to Firestone and Hoosier. That might not be the brightest of ideas, Tony. I find it hard to believe Smoke would take his car on the track with the same rubber that apparently caused two fatal crashes at Daytona in 1994. Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr died in single-car crashes during practice when each blew a tire. Both cars were running Hoosier tires in its doomed return to NASCAR.

Carl Edwards proved a missing oil lid and crew chief won’t slow him down this year. The only thing that stopped him from three-peating was a broken transmission with 50 laps to go. It certainly seemed bizarre to see the fastest car on the track leaving a plume of smoke behind it.

One driver that appears to be struggling is Jimmie Johnson. True, it’s early in the season, but neither he nor teammate Jeff Gordon has much to show for the season besides a couple of poles. When was the last time Hendrick Motorsports started the year 0-for-4?

The series heads to Bristol this weekend and the story surely will be Dale Jarrett. It is expected to be his final start in the Cup series before he moves permanently into the broadcast booth. DJ had a fabulous career and it will be disappointing to see him leave. But he should be a great addition to ESPN.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Welcome to Hot-lanta

NASCAR fans will be treated this weekend to a rare triple-header in Atlanta. It couldn't happen at a better track than AMS (or is it now called Cracker Barrel Speedway?).

The side-by-side racing became exceptional when workers reconfigured the track in 1997 and turned it into a quad-oval. That first race at the new track in November 1997 was full of excitement as Geoff Bodine sat on the pole with a fast lap of more than 197 mph. The following day, points leader Jeff Gordon crashed his primary car on pit road as he prepared to take the track for practice. In his back-up car, Gordon barely held off Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin to win his second championship.

The Atlanta races also have been known for rain delays. In the 1998 season finale, Gordon won his 13th race of the year shortly before midnight. The March 2000 Busch Series race also went late before Mark Martin took the checkers.

But Atlanta is best known for three-wide racing and fantastic finishes. The final laps of the Cup races at the turn of the century were both riveting and emotional. Dale Earnhardt barely beat Bobby Labonte to the line in 2000; then Kevin Harvick honored The Intimidator with a similar finish against Gordon the following year.

Why NASCAR decided to move the final race of the year from Atlanta to Homestead-Miami remains a mystery. You're sure to find the best racing of the year this Sunday afternoon.

It will be interesting to see if Roush-Fenway Racing can continue its strong runs at the intermediate tracks, or if the 100-point penalty to Carl Edwards following his win at Vegas will break the streak. Sprint Cup qualifying begins at 6:30 p.m. today and will be televised on SPEED-TV. The truck race starts at 9 p.m.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Higher education of racing

The Associated Press reported last week that Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., will attempt to enter a race car in several Nationwide Series races this year. The story - first reported last year by Jake Stump of the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail - notes that a part-time team of local West Virginians are trying to run a limited series with a driver who has competed in only 11 Nationwide Series races. It's a heart-warming story of an underdog team trying to make it to the big show.

There's one catch to this pitch. While the Marshall emblem will adorn the car's hood, the university will not pay a single penny for the sponsorship. Turns out that the team owner, Dana Tomes, is a Marshall alumnus and is giving the free advertising to his alma mater. They hope to gather the $75,000 it costs to race each weekend through small sponsorships and donations. Good luck with that.

It's hard enough to compete in NASCAR's second-tier series even with major funding and a spacious race shop. Herd Racing, however, built its only race car in what basically amounts to a barn. That may have worked in Days of Thunder, but it sure as heck won't work in 2008.

This isn't to say I won't be rooting for Herd Racing and driver Brett Rowe - whom I've interviewed before and is a class act - when they attempt to qualify at Bristol next weekend. Unfortunately, this race team has little chance for success. In the end, this appears to be just another PR stunt by people looking to capitalize on the rapid success of NASCAR.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Vegas review

Wasn't able to watch the end of the UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas on Sunday, so check out the race story on the O-R's site. Carl Edwards won for the second week in a row, but it appears NASCAR found a problem with his car during post-race inspection. reported that the win will stand, but it is likely Edwards and Roush-Fenway Racing will lose points. That almost certainly puts Edwards' 21-point grip on first place in jeopardy.

I missed most of the race, but did catch the pre-race show and have some gripes with that weekly escapade. First, why did Darrell Waltrip happily proclaim how close and competitive the rookie standings were after just two races? Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Regan Smith were tied, and Waltrip said he couldn't remember a time this late in the season when that last happened. I have news for you, Darrell: The circuit was just two races into the season, so I'm sure a lot will change. After Las Vegas, that fantastic trio dropped to 36th, 38th and 39 in the points.

Also, do any other fans have a problem with these late starts, especially at Vegas when the green flag didn't drop Sunday until 4:48 p.m.? NASCAR is dumbfounded by it's plummeting ratings. Could it be that it's dinner time on Sunday when NASCAR finally cuts them loose? The race could have easily started at noon Las Vegas-time - it would be 2 p.m. here - and finish at a respectable time. Does NASCAR want every race to end in the dark?