Monday, June 30, 2008

Daytona vacation

Ahhh, what a beautiful sight! I’ll be making the annual pilgrimage this week to Daytona Beach to attend the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night, which has become a typical summer vacation spot for me, my father and stepbrother since 1993. Beginning Thursday, I plan to blog daily about the intense racing and drunken debacle that is the Daytona experience. Over the next couple of days, I’ll post a story about my visit there in 2006. Anyone else excited about sun splashed beaches, beer-lined swimming pools and restrictor plate racing?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Martin's math: 6 - 01 = 5

It is increasingly likely that Mark Martin will return to racing full-time next year in a final attempt to win the Sprint Cup. is reporting Martin will replace the perpetually disappointing Casey Mears in Hendrick Racing’s No. 5 car. I’m glad that Martin is returning to racing, but I wonder why he’s doing it now.

Just last year, Martin started the season in the No. 01 and damn well nearly won the Daytona 500. Kevin Harvick ruined the fun when he passed Martin with about 100 yards to go in the race. Athough immensely disappointing, Martin used the momentum from that finish to lead the points standings for four weeks, before handing the keys over to rookie Regan Smith for the Bristol race. He still remained in the top-10 even after missing that race.

Martin was off to a good start that season and, at that point, should have decided to compete in the Crapshoot for the Cup later in the year. Who knows what will happen next year if he goes to Hendrick, but I’m wishing him the best of luck. It’d be great to see him win the Daytona 500 … or more importantly, that elusive championship.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Street illegal

By Amanda Gillooly
O-R Staff Writer

I’m a writer, but I know I’ll never be a Shakespeare or a Hemmingway. And while I enjoy throwing the football around, I know I’ll never make it to the pros. That doesn’t diminish my skills. It’s just reality.

That word – reality – must not be that popular among some racing fans, who must honestly think they are Dale Earnhardt Jr. or some other such popular driver. I see them all the time and it always makes me laugh. While driving home from work on Interstate 79 last Friday, I encountered a white minivan. My first clues that it was trouble were the various stickers on the bumper – numbers that I recognize as representing NASCAR, but have no intimate knowledge of.

Cruising at 70 mph, I quickly signaled my intent to turn, where I got a better look at the ridiculousness. There just had to be more. And there was – a bright fire decal running down the sides. But I’ve seen sillier. There always seems to be the guy driving a 1989 Toyota Camry, weaving in-and-out of traffic, more rust than metal showing. While it is clear that he believes the car makes him able to perform NASCAR-worthy stunts, I’m betting the whole frame starts to shake when he goes more than 62 mph.

Even though that was clear to me, he obviously doesn’t get it. The spinner wheels, racing stripe and pimped-out exhaust don’t make the rusty road warrior anything more than it is: A 1989 Toyota Camry. Even Dale Jr. would tell him that.

Monday, June 23, 2008

PPMS Results - June 21

Late Models – 25-lap feature
1. Lynn Geisler (68th career late model win at PPMS)
2. Jared Miley
3. Jim Stephans
4. Mike Johnson
5. Steve Baker
6. Ben Miley
7. Dave Wade
8. D J Miller
9. Kyle Lukon*
10. Keith Rodriguez*

Crate Late Models – 20-lap feature
1. Mike Pegher Jr.
2. Mark Moats Jr.*
3. Tommy Schirnhofer*
4. Steve Beatty
5. Bryant Hank
6. Josh Holtgraver
7. Daryl Charlier
8. Justin Lamb
9. Laura Lukon
10. Ken Chernik

E-Modifieds – 12-lap feature
1. Wayne Tessean (70th career E-Mod victory is most in PPMS history)
2. Clayton Kennedy
3. Chuck Kennedy
4. Vince Laboon
5. Joel Johns
6. Mike McKee
7. Bruce Dreistadt
8. Denny Nakutis
9. Willy Briggs
10. Tom Martineck

Young Guns – 8-lap feature
1. Justin Pons
2. Tyler Atkinson
3. Sean Graham
4. Michael Reft
5. Todd Janus
6. Tyler Fox
7. Daniel White
8. Brian Beyerbach
9. Hannah Ramsey

The Pure Stocks and Amateur Stocks divisions both were cancelled due to rain. Nick Kocuba and Jake Simmons won the Pure Stocks heat races and Brian Huchko won the Amateur Stocks heat race.

(* denotes heat winners)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Part 3 - Disappointing day

With the short tracks in full swing, here’s a three-part story examining the triumphs and struggles of local weekend racers. The story originally ran Aug. 12, 2007 in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter. Thanks to O-R photographer Celeste Van Kirk for the pictures.

By Mike Jones

Back at Pennsylvania Motor Speedway near Imperial, Allegheny County, the No. 29 team and Keith Rodriguez gather on the roof of their trailer to watch the other races. Rodriguez usually carries a smile beneath his thick, salt-and-pepper mustache. On his right arm is a tattoo of his car number and a checkered flag around it. On the other arm is a bald eagle with a checkered flag lodged in its mouth.

Moments before the main event, Rodriguez, sipping a can of Diet Pepsi, discusses final adjustments with his crew chief. Then he climbs down the trailer and slips into his car. Even after years on the circuit, Rodriguez admitted he "sometimes gets a sick feeling in my stomach" before a race, but once in the car he is focused.

Of course, there is an element of danger. Two years ago Rodriguez crashed and flipped onto his roof, but he escaped without a scratch. "Sometimes when you're driving these things you don't realize what's going on behind you or beside you," Rodriguez said. “Your field of vision is so limited that it's tough sometimes."

Soon it's time for Rodriguez's race. A sparkling red pace car leads the cars around the muddy track. The green flag drops and Rodriguez roars from his 10th place starting position, but in just a few laps he begins to lose positions and is noticeably slower than some of the other cars.

After just five laps, his car drifts high in turn two while he searches for a faster groove, but the car smacks the wall. Coming down the front stretch, sparks and smoke billow out of the back as the right rear tire shreds. His nephew, Jason Fasone, slams a water bottle to the ground. The rest of the crew members standing on top of the trailer are stunned and scurry over to look at the damage.

The race is over for them. They repair the car just enough so it can roll into the trailer. With heavy sheet metal and suspension damage it's going to be a long week at the garage. Rodriguez, clearly dejected by the short night, indicates this setback won't stop them from competing again next week. "We'll be back," he says, still flashing his trademark smile.

So go the highs and lows of short-track racing.

- The End -

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Part 2 - Passion for speed

With the short tracks in full swing, here’s a three-part story examining the triumphs and struggles of local weekend racers. The story originally ran Aug. 12, 2007 in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter. Thanks to O-R photographer Celeste Van Kirk for the pictures.

By Mike Jones

The scene is similar at Motordrome Speedway near Interstate 70 in Westmoreland County about 10 miles east of the Washington County line. With a paved surface, it's not as dirty while drivers race door-to-door at the half-mile track. The most prestigious cars race each Friday at Motordrome in the Whelen All-American Series, a weekly division that is a minor-league affiliate of NASCAR.

The Whelen Series cars are much sleeker and built closer to the ground than their dirt-track cousins. None of the race cars has a speedometer because, surprisingly, the speed is insignificant to the driver during the race. But several crews estimated that the cars run well over 100 mph on the straightaways. The cars cost about $40,000 each, which doesn't include the $20,000 it costs for a team to compete in the season's 20 races. Several sponsors and car dealerships are needed to support the teams because the prize money usually is not enough.

One of the top drivers in the series is Garry Wiltrout, who pilots the No. 95 Ford. When not at the track, Wiltrout, 42, of Bakersville, Somerset County, makes a living by selling ambulances in Westmoreland County. After work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Wiltrout and the crew head to the garage in Scottdale to prepare the car for the upcoming race. Thursdays are reserved for a round of golf – unless a crash tears up the car. "It's not bad," Wiltrout said, "as long as you don't wreck it."

Bad finishes are unusual for Wiltrout, who is a former track champion and currently second in the point standings with three victories so far this year. However, on this particular July night, the car is not only having clutch problems but also must start last because Wiltrout won the previous race. Several crewmen lie underneath the car and feverishly work to fix the problem before the 35-lap feature race.

Racing against less-experienced drivers at the rear of the field can prove to be costly. One of the track's tow truck drivers, Mike Hampton, knows crashes and hot tempers sometimes lead to fistfights. "Once in a while somebody will get a little hot, but they chill out," Hampton said. "I take care of that."

Despite the challenges, Wiltrout overcomes the clutch problems and avoids the wrecks to finish second behind teammate Bobby Henry. "We've been having a good time right now," Wiltrout said.

- This series continues Friday -

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Part 1 - Right on track

With the short tracks in full swing, here’s a three-part story examining the triumphs and struggles of local weekend racers. The story originally ran Aug. 12, 2007 in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter. Thanks to O-R photographer Celeste Van Kirk for the pictures.

By Mike Jones

Kicking up mud and rocks embedded in the dirt surface, Keith Rodriguez jerks the steering wheel violently while sliding his super late model car around the half-mile track.

This isn't a furious race to the checkered flag at Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway, but rather just a few breathtaking hot laps in preparation for the main event later in the evening. Rodriguez, a 48-year-old US Airways pilot from Crescent Township, Allegheny County, soon pulls his car off the track and onto the pit road for service.

Rodriguez's nephew, Jason Fasone, helps direct the car into the team's stall, and the six-member homegrown crew – made up of family members and friends – immediately jumps into action. Fasone grabs a jack to lift the car, then whips out an air wrench, fires off the wheel's lug nuts and pulls off the tires. Crew chief Luke Ciarallo is already underneath the car and begins tinkering with the rear suspension while pondering what other adjustments are needed. Meanwhile, other crew members, including Cheryl Arbes, Rodriguez's sister, gather around and perform tasks that range from refueling the car to repairing battered sheet metal.

This routine is not unique to Rodriguez and his crew. For drivers and their teams across Western Pennsylvania and nearby states, the weekends are dedicated to chasing race cars – and their dreams – at high speeds. Finding money to race for the 23 events each year is tight, with a driver earning just $1,200 for a victory. But more important than the money is the time Rodriguez spends with his family and friends.

"These guys make it happen," Rodriguez says as he pulls himself out of the cockpit of the No. 29 car. "There's not a person down here that doesn't love this. We just come out and have a good time."

- This series continues Thursday -

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rolling coaster

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a points race for the first time in more than two years in what should have been a triumph to savor. But he seemed to diminish his own victory just moments after stepping from his car and getting a celebratory Amp shower.

"I can understand how it might look, especially if you're not Dale Jr. fans," he said in Victory Lane. "I know exactly what they're going to say Monday. I mean, my fans are happy and I'm happy for them. The other half are going to tear this apart on how we won this race."

He was alluding to the fact he won the Michigan race on fuel strategy, stretching his pit window more than 50 laps. Junior shut the engine off and coasted past the pace car during a late caution to save fuel. But if not for a crash on the last lap during the green-white-checkers finish, Junior would have run out of fuel. Instead, he coasted across the finish line for his 18th career victory.

In that post-race interview, he indicated the way he won this race would be scrutinized. It shouldn't be. This was a great win for Junior, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and the rest of his team. They stretched the fuel farther than anyone thought possible and Junior saved even more in the closing caution laps. What an incredible feat and it should be applauded just the same as if he had led the most laps and sailed to the finish line with a commanding lead.

This has been a great year for the No. 88 and it was a powerful performance Sunday afternoon by Junior and his new team. His critics should acknowledge that, but more importantly, hopefully Junior will savor it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tweaking the Chase

As you can tell, I’m an ardent hater of the Chase for the Cup. But it’s not fair to rail against a botched system without proposing an alternative. Besides scrapping the entire format and going back to the original points system, here’s my suggestion on how to improve the Chase.

First, cut the championship contenders down to 10 (instead of 12) after the first 26 races. Also, give a driver 20 bonus points in the Chase for each win during the regular season. There should be other incentives to award consistence, as well, which is not happening now. Each top-5 should garner 10 bonus points for the Chase and a top-10 should bring five bonus points. NASCAR could offer another 5 bonus points for each pole if it wanted to put an emphasis on qualifying. Given this scenario, this is how the field would look if the Chase began today.

1. Kyle Busch - Leader
2. Carl Edwards – 80
3. Dale Earnhardt – 115
3. Denny Hamlin – 115
5. Jeff Burton – 120
6. Kasey Kahne – 125
7. Jimmie Johnson – 135
7. Jeff Gordon – 135
9. Greg Biffle – 145
10. Kevin Harvick – 185

I’m not saying this format is perfect, but it would give drivers more of an incentive to race for top-5 or top-10 finishes rather than just for wins. Of course, I won’t hold my breath for any changes in the near future. Instead, it seems we'll be stuck with 26 meaningless races until the real fun begins.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Six points of separation

The TNT television crew lavished praise upon the No. 18 team for getting their car back on the track after a crash. Too bad it didn’t matter if they fixed the car or packed up and went home. After Kyle Busch crashed into Jamie McMurray, the team worked feverishly to fix the car and collect a few more points. Unfortunately, it would take another 34 laps for Busch to pick up two positions and six not-so-precious championship points. Those six points may have been valuable in the 2003 version of championship, but not in the new era of the Chase.

The reason? Busch is atop the standings after 14 races and leads David Ragan, the first man out of the Chase, by 477 points. Barring a major malfunction by the No. 18 or injury to Busch, there is no possible way he’s missing NASCAR’s playoffs. The most important number for him right now is four. That’s how many wins he has, meaning he would be at the top of the points if the Chase began now.

The old discussion about the importance of points should be over. Each point for the leaders does not mean as much as it did five years ago because it doesn’t matter what place you’re in after 26 races. Take Dale Jr., for example. He is third in the standings and has 10 top-10’s this year, but he doesn’t have a single victory. That means he would begin the Chase in eighth place and 40 points behind Busch. Not much of a consolation prize for one of the best drivers in 2007, although he could easily overcome that deficit.

The Chase, unfortunately, has de-emphasized the importance of the first 26 races. That's too bad, too, because Busch and Jeff Burton are separate by just 21 points. What a run to finish that could have been between two drivers that have had remarkable seasons thus far. But until Brian France gets a clue on how to run NASCAR, we’ll just be stuck with this joke of a system. What a shame.

If the Chase started today
Kyle Busch – Leader
Carl Edwards – 20 points
Kasey Kahne –20 points
Jeff Burton – 30 points
Denny Hamlin – 30 points
Jimmie Johnson –30 points
Clint Bowyer –30 points
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 40 points
Greg Biffle – 40 points
Jeff Gordon – 40 points
Kevin Harvick – 40 points
Tony Stewart – 40 points

Friday, June 6, 2008

Big Busch's Triple Crown

Big Brown is running Saturday for horse racing’s Triple Crown in Belmont, N.Y., but it’s another horse of sorts that is going for the mind-boggling trifecta this weekend. Kyle Busch will attempt to qualify and race in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions – each of which are at different tracks scattered across the country.

His weekend begins today when he qualifies in Pocono for the Cup race and flies to Ft. Worth, Texas, to drive in the Truck race. He will fly back to Pocono Saturday to practice his Cup car and then jet to Nashville to compete in Nationwide. The weekend ends when Busch starts Sunday’s race at Pocono.

The question is now being posed whether this could hurt his Sprint Cup team. Who cares? This kid has an incredible amount of talent and seems to thrive on driving any car at any track. He seems to get better the more he drives and, more importantly, wins.

Some suspect the amount of traveling could tire him by the time he steps into his Sprint Cup car. Are you kidding me? Most kids his age are binge drinking Thursday night before taking a college final Friday morning. He is young and resilient.

These younger drivers seem to be unflappable in the most difficult conditions. But if Busch wins all three races this weekend, he will be proving that he is unstoppable.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thank you, Pens

I realize this isn’t exactly the correct forum for hockey, but last night’s game was both heartbreaking and inspiring. The Pittsburgh Penguins nearly overcame a two-goal deficit late in the third period to send the game into overtime. With less than two minutes left, the Pens scored a shorthanded goal with their goaltender pulled. Then, with six seconds remaining, Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa nearly pulled off a miracle goal.

But it wasn’t to be. Still, the way the Pens battled this entire season and especially in the Stanley Cup finals is something this city won’t forget. Game 5 will be talked about for a long time, and Game 6 nearly had the same distinction. Most of the 17,000-plus fans at Mellon Arena stayed to watch the Red Wings skate with the Cup – something I rarely see an opponent’s fans do. But I think they really stuck around to salute the Pens for the remarkable season. And maybe they hoped the season wasn’t over.

If anything, it gave people from Western Pennsylvania a worthy distraction to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe the saddest news of all is that we’ll have to watch that sorry bunch of baseball players for the next couple months until training camp in Latrobe, Pa. And at least we still have racing, right?

Thank you, Pens.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Smokey interpretation

Something caught my eye this morning while reading today’s Associated Press race report from Dover. In the story, reporter Dan Gelston alludes to the huge pileup that took out six Chase contenders when Elliot Sadler spun in Turn 2 and blocked the track. Tony Stewart, who couldn’t stop in time and had nowhere to go, crashed into the side of Sadler and the two cars blocked track. According to Gelston’s story, Stewart felt he triggered the crash.

“Stewart took the blame for running too close to Sadler,” the story said. “Stewart lost his chance at victory last week at Charlotte after the No. 20 Toyota got a flat tire with three laps left. ‘Unfortunately, adversity is our motto here at Joe Gibbs Racing,’ Stewart said.”

Anyone watching the race clearly saw that David Gilliland tapped Sadler and sent him into the spin. Stewart “took the blame” for crashing because he was angry at Sadler. Check out the rest of Stewart’s race conversation and you’ll see the point Smoke was trying to make.

"I take 100 percent responsibility. It's my fault for being even anywhere close to Elliott," Stewart said. “If I'm within a half a lap of him, I expect that to happen. It's my fault.”

Apparently, Gelston couldn’t tell Stewart was being sarcastic when he said he shouldn’t be racing anywhere near the No. 19 bumpercar driven by Sadler. Of course, Denny Hamlin still needs to explain why he drove nearly full-speed into the pack of crashed race cars. He blamed it on the COT’s inability to stop as quickly as the old car. Puuuhhhhleeeeease.

Anyway, there’s a budding feud between Stewart and Sadler, who crashed into the No. 20 just three weeks ago early in the Darlington race. It would be wise for Sadler to get out of the doghouse, and he better do it soon.

PPMS UFo Results - June 1

The Unified Force Series came to Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway Sunday afternoon and 32 drivers participated in both of the F-2 Shockwave super late model races. The winner of each feature race received $5,100 in prize money.

Super Late Models (30-lap features)
Feature 1
1. Steve Baker*
2. Lynn Geisler*
3. Al Atallah*
4. Jared Miley
5. Alex Ferree*
6. Davey Johnson
7. John Flinner
8. Lou Bradich
9. Dave Wade
10. Kyle Lukon

Feature 2
1. Al Atallah*
2. Jared Miley
3. Steve Baker*
4. Alex Ferree*
5. John Flinner
6. Mike Johnson
7. Lynn Geisler*
8. Kyle Lukon
9. Keith Barbara
10. Brandon Burgoon

Crate Late Models (20-lap feature)
1. Daryl Charlier*
2. Daniel Angelicchio*
3. Tommy Schirnhofer
4. Bryant Hank
5. Steve Beatty*
6. Josh Holtgraver
7. Rocky Kugel
8. Russ Kolesar
9. Chris Angelicchio
10. Craig Koteles

E-Modifieds (15-lap feature)
1. Wayne Tessean*
2. Daryl Charlier*
3. Kevin Miller
4. Tom Martineck
5. J.E. Stalder
6. J.J. Bametzrieder
7. Bruce Dreistadt
8. Vince Laboon
9. Dennis Perigo
10. Jim Turley

Pure Stocks (15-lap feature)
1. Chuck Gebauer
2. Craig Kamicker*
3. Shawn Thorn
4. Pat Weldon*
5. Pat Hanley
6. Jake Simmons
7. Wayne Cerbo
8. Bill Robertson*
9. Joe Anthony
10. Bob Schwartzmille

Amateur Stocks (10-lap feature)
1. Tony White
2. Robby Torrens
3. Brian Huchko
4. Curt Bish
5. Darren Ferguson
6. Dan Duseheid
7. Eric Goldberg

Young Guns (8-lap feature)
1. Michael Reft
2. Sean Graham
3. Alec Broniszewski
4. Tyler Atkinson
5. Rich Mason
6. Daniel White
7. Justin Pons
8. Hannah Ramsey

(* denotes heat winners)