Monday, February 23, 2009

Two-fer for Kenseth

The putrid racing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana (or whatever the southern California speedway is called nowadays) had me seriously contemplating switching to the Academy Awards late Sunday night. And this is coming from a guy who, not too long ago, thought “Slumdog Millionaires” was a film about landlords and the dilapidated apartments they rent to poor tenants.

Would it kill someone to initiate a green flag pass for the lead more than just a couple times over 500 miles? When is NASCAR going to wake up to the fact that this 2-mile flat oval just is not designed for stock cars? IndyCars, maybe. But please, Brian France, get rid of the two races at Fontana.

The racing didn't deter winner Matt Kenseth, who is already proving he’s a contender after his second victory in as many weeks. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle offered the only other legitimate runs against Kenseth, who drove away from all of them at the end. Gordon mounted a decent challenge with a few laps remaining, but his tires were shot at the end.

Regardless of the mild Kenseth/Gordon duel in the closing laps, the racing was weak. It’s time for NASCAR to re-evaluate the California Speedway experiment. It’s just not a good follow-up act to Daytona Speedweeks.

I’d like to applaud Dick Bergren for that wonderful Victory Lane question he asked the race winner. I think a four-tire pit stop lasts longer than that poor excuse for an interview. When are these race “reporters” going to learn we’d rather hear a lengthy Q&A with the winner, than what the 10th place finisher was thinking on Lap 154. Just spend some extra time with the winner!

These television networks owe it to the drivers, teams and sponsors. Give them some credit and air time. Kenseth won the race, so he deserves to have the maximum exposure. One question isn’t going to cut it. Next time, Dick, try thinking of a follow-up.

What the hell is FOX doing with this stupid Digger Cam? Sure, it was mildly humorous the first 1,000 times ole Digger popped out of his hole, wearing a scarf and goggles, before ducking back in with the cars roaring by. Then Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip decided to kill the cartoon critter by saying each time, “You better run back into that hole, buddy!”

Now FOX has gone too far with the Digger Family. The computer-animated foursome of furry characters practically blocks the entire camera view. There are quite a few profane words tossed at the television each time they appear before scurrying back into the dirt. If FOX does not immediately cease and desist, I might be forced to contact an infamous gopher exterminator...Digger, meet my good friend Mr. Murray.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jennerstown closes for 2009

The national economic downturn may have claimed a local victim this week. The owner of Jennerstown Speedway announced he will not open the Somerset County race track this seaso nbecause he doesn’t have the time to run the operation. Dave Wheeler told The Associated Press he no longer has enough time to serve as president and CEO of Wheeler Bros. in Somerset. He’s unsure if he will reopen the track near year, although he might sell it. He told the AP that interest in local racing seems to be dwindling.

That sounds to me like a man who doesn’t have the time to lose any more money. I doubt many local drivers or teams can afford to travel to the track and race each weekend this summer. Racing is such an expensive hobby that it's probably the first thing to go when times are tough.

The announcement is somewhat sad for me after having been to Jennerstown for a Hooters Cup race in 2005. That was the race where Joey Logano made his debut in the series and promptly crashed Jimmy Spencer Jr. It’s a great facility located near the quaint borough of 714 residents and just a few miles from the Flight 93 Memorial and Quecreek Mine rescue site. The track debuted in the late 1920s, the AP reported, and Wheeler bought it about six years ago.

This seems like a tangible example of what we’re all feeling from this economy. But it’s unfortunate that one of the bigger tracks in Western Pennsylvania is closing. In times like these, it’s nice to escape reality and go to the local track for an evening of fun. Here's hoping other local tracks don't face a similar dilemma.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Daytona 380 musings

Overall, the Daytona 380 was pretty boring and nowhere near as riveting as last year's season-opening race. Rain all but killed any chance of an exciting finish, but seeing Matt Kenseth choke back tears more than made up for the lack of late-race drama.

When was the last time a driver openly sobbed on network television following a win? Probably have to go back to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in 1994 when a young Jeff Gordon captured his first victory. But there was the normally reserved Kenseth, sitting in his car Sunday night at Daytona and holding back a few tears. He couldn’t contain his emotions any longer when NASCAR called the race and declared him the winner.

Nowadays, it seems like Gatorade or champagne showers are all-too staged for Victory Lane, but this was a potent reminder of how much Daytona means to the drivers. There was nothing staged about Kenseth’s emotions. For someone who seems robotic in and out of the race car, it is nice to see a new side to the 2003 Cup champ. Who knows if he will be able to carry the momentum from this win throughout the season, but frankly, I don’t think it really matters to him. The No. 17 and Kenseth are back in victory lane, where they belong.

Quite simply, Elliot Sadler defeated himself. Leading the Daytona 500 with rain approaching the speedway, Sadler took a pessimistic attitude about what would develop on the track.

“Welcome to Elliott Sadler's world,” he said. “It's probably raining all around the racetrack. When I need it, in the lap where I get passed, it starts raining in turn three. It's the way it is.”

Who can blame the man for feeling that way? This is the same driver who had to threaten a lawsuit against his team to ensure he remained in the No. 19 car for 2009. What an awkward Victory Lane that would’ve been. It was the perfect opportunity to shove it in their face, but he knew he couldn’t win … shouldn’t win.

“I needed this after the off season that I've had,” Sadler said. “Really would have been cool. Didn't work out, but happy for my guys. Great mentality all night long.”

Except for the man behind the wheel.

What the hell happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr.? He made two crucial mistakes on pit road and then triggered The Big One near the end of the race. Something just didn’t seem right during his post-race interview, either.

He claimed that he missed his pit because all the signboards are pink, but later said all of them are yellow. Um, Junior, they looked orange to me. But, regardless of what color they are, it can’t be too hard to spot the giant 88 hanging from the sky over your stall. It’s not like you’re a rookie pitting for the first time.

During a later pit stop, a NASCAR official ruled he was parked outside his stall. Now, I’m no rules aficionado, but I thought you only needed three wheels in the box. Looked to me like he had three inside with the fourth resting on the white line. Did he really deserve a one-lap penalty for that atrocity?

But the biggest rumbling of the day came when Earnhardt and Brian Vickers tangled on the backstretch. Each blamed the other for the crash. I think they’re both at fault. Earnhardt had a run on Vickers and should’ve been able to make the move without being forced out of bounds. Meanwhle, Earnhardt should’ve given Vickers a bit more room when the re-entered the track. If both gave each other a little room, Kyle Busch would be the 2009 Daytona 500 champ.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fighting for last place

The best races in the G-Duels are not at the front, but mired deep in the pack of scavengers hungry to make the Daytona 500. Sure, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin put on a great in the second heat race, but look back about seven or eight cars and you’ll find the most interesting battles and story lines.

The transfer spots are a hot commodity and make for riveting racing. Congratulations to Jeremy Mayfield, Scott Riggs, Regan Smith and AJ Allmendinger for making the big show. And no, you didn’t read that list wrong. Four guys who didn’t even have a ride a few months ago will be taking parade laps around Daytona International Speedway. Of course, I’m not predicting an impressive run by any of them, but it’s good to see hard work and perseverance by no-name teams (yes, Richard Petty Motorsports is now field-filler) can result in the fulfillment of a dream. Maybe it can even launch them into a full-season ride.

Of course, there are also the losers of Speedweeks. So long, Boris Said and Joe Nemechek. Maybe we'll see you next year. Until then, enjoy your yearlong sabbatical.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Top-5 questions of '09

What a difference a year makes. The Top-5 questions before Sunday's Daytona 500 are vastly different than what we thought would be the big stories last year. And as the famous political slogan goes, “It’s the economy, stupid!” No other sport relies on dollar bills more than NASCAR, and with corporations shedding workers at a feverous pace over the past six months, it’s hard to justify plunging evaporating capital reserves into sponsorships for race cars. And can any fans still afford to attend a race?

5: Will Kyle get Busch-whacked ... again?
Kyle Busch lost his Hendrick ride and promptly shoved it to his ex-employer by winning eight races with Joe Gibbs Racing. Unfortunately, that early season domination evaporated by the Chase. Busch and the No. 18 team had a great year, but hopefully they learned how to run an entire season together and peak in October and November this time around. They have the talent and the equipment, so it will be interesting to see if they can win when it counts.

4: Who can stop the Hendrick dream team?
Rick Hendrick continues to amaze me. Not only did he pluck Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson from relative obscurity years ago, but he also wooed Dale Earnhardt Jr. from his daddy’s company and brought Mark Martin out of retirement. Is there anything this guy can’t do with a race team? But the question remains whether all four cars can be dominant. We know what the No. 48 did last year, but Gordon did not win a race for the first time since his rookie year and Lil’ E scored the only other Hendrick win. Martin should help the organization as he keeps the seat warm for future star Brad Keselowski.

3: What team or driver will fold before Homestead?
Four organizations merged in the past few months due to sponsorship or cash problems and countless other no-name teams came to Daytona praying for some media exposure. But we’re not talking just about the no-names not making the distance. One has to wonder if any formerly major operations will shut down in the coming weeks. And look at the former champions relegated to second-hand equipment. Bobby Labonte is driving the, Bill Elliott is toiling with the Wood Brothers and Terry Labonte is piloting the Window World car. Are you kidding me?! Get a clue guys, and go to the broadcast booth.

2: Four-peat for the 48?
Can Jimmie Johnson win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title? Johnson has been the best driver in the series since his rookie season in 2002. But bad luck stopped him from winning championships his first four seasons. Well, since then, he’s been perfect when it has mattered most. Johnson and the No. 48 team had a horrendous start to last season, but they improved throughout the first 26 races and were in peak-form by the Chase. At that point, no one could stop him, not even Carl Edwards. If Johnson can win another championship this season, he will go down in history as one of the greatest.

1: Can NASCAR survive?
From the outside, it looks like NASCAR the company will be able to weather the economic storm this year. But what about the race teams and fans? One look at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday for the Shootout showed a sorry situation where no more than half of the seats were filled (and that’s being generous) for a prime-time event. The attendance at Thursdsay’s G-Duel’s and especially the 500 will make it clear whether fans have the money to come to the races. The situation might be worse for the race teams. A healthy contingent of 55 cars rolled into Daytona hoping to qualify. That’s a great number, but how many will return at California or Vegas? Cars without sponsors might be able to survive a few races, but they, too, will have to close shop within a few weeks. Let’s hope each race attracts 43 cars that show up and can actually compete. But maybe that’s asking for too much.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Return of the blog

Welcome back to 'Jonesin' for Speed' for another season (I hope) of racing commentary and news from the local tracks. It’s been a difficult off-season for all of us, and NASCAR has not been immune from the economic smack down we’re enduring. Nothing is more evident of that than qualifying Sunday afternoon for the Daytona 500. How many cars either had bunk sponsors on their hoods or no decals at all? Window World and BluFrog are now replacing the likes of Kodak and Alltel. Even Roger Penske's No. 12 car doesn't have a sponsor, which probably should be a hint to the Captain that David Stremme shouldn't have a ride. These second-tier sponsors might work for this Sunday’s 500, but NASCAR will be lucky for 43 cars to even show up at California the following week.

Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout offered an in-depth, if not bizarre, look at what will happen in the Daytona 500. It seemed ridiculous to have 28 cars in a supposed All-Star event, but maybe NASCAR was throwing a bone to the struggling car manufacturers. Regardless, I was dumbfounded to see drivers like A.J. Allmendinger and Scott Speed racing. Where was 2008 Daytona 500 champ Ryan Newman? But if we learned one thing, it’s that these cars will be hopping all over the track. Jeff Gordon said in an interview that he wondered whether the viewers could see the cars bouncing around and nearly into each other. Note to Jeff: We could see them moving around all the way from the blimp camera. Here’s hoping the 500 field doesn’t get whittled down to 10 cars by Lap 175 … if the economic meltdown doesn’t do it before then.

During this week, we'll take a look at the top stories of 2009 and react to the Gatorade Duel races on Thursday. Speedweek is here, and not a moment too soon.