The racing "feel-good story" of the weekend was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winning the pole yesterday for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 – he’s on the locked-in front row with food bank-sponsored Jeff Gordon – exactly 10 years after the death of his father in the 2001 “Great American Race.”
There may be those who think this was a little too coincidental (and it will be if Junior wins the big race next weekend, considering he hasn’t won a Cup race in years) but his 48.364-second run yesterday (186.089 mph) looked entirely on the up-and-up, particularly since the aging Gordon runs for the same team, Hendrick Motorsports. Full qualifying story here
Having said that, I’m worried about Dale Jr. Despite the run, he seems to have lost his self-confidence. He stutters and stammers his way through interviews and just can’t seem to look whoever’s talking to him in the eye – glancing this way and that to avoid eye contact.
For sure, a trip to Victory Lane is going to help but I think there’s something else going on with him, whether it’s concern about the racing business he owns with his sister Kelly (JR Motorsports) or leftover resentment from the falling-out he had with his stepmother following his father’s death.
One reason five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been so successful, I think, is because he has absolutely no distractions. He’s a Sprint Cup driver, period. No Nationwide or truck series obligations. No ownership in anything racing-related. He just shows up and drives his Sprint Cup car and then goes home.
Other Sprint Cup drivers might be able to spread themselves around – Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski – but Earnhardt Jr. isn’t one of them and it’s showing.
I think he’s got great talent but whatever’s eating him up inside is dragging him down.
Meantime, attention will now shift to the qualifying races scheduled for Thursday. At one time, these races meant something, but no more.
Once upon a time, NASCAR locked in the front row through time trials and then split the field for the two qualifyers. If you finished in the top 15 in either of those races, you were in the Daytona 500. (They then filled the 43-car field with time-trials times, reserved spots, and so-on.)
This meant that by finishing in the top 15 in one of those races, Joe Schmoe from Peoria had a chance to race his way into the Daytona 500 – which used to happen on occasion. But no more.
Because of NASCAR’s locking-in of the top 35 cars in points, those cars and drivers are guaranteed of starting next Sunday (including Steve Wallace, a Cup rookie who’s never started a race in the big league and was 10th in points in the 2010 Nationwide Series).
And then there are always one or two spots reserved for former winners, regardless of activity or age.
Which means that two spots in each race – four positions in all – are all that are up for grabs next Thursday.
So, why bother? Why not go strictly on time trials?
I guarantee that there will be at least one big wreck next Thursday and the drivers involved will look at their torn-up machinery and say the same things I’m saying here: what is the purpose?
It would be much fairer and much more exciting to go back to the old system and make those two races mean something.
NASCAR has other problems going into the qualifying races, as well as the headliner next Sunday.
The repaving of Daytona International Speedway has somehow affected the aerodynamics of the generic CoT (the Car of Today, which used to be the Car of Tomorrow) and rather than freight trains of racing cars flying around Daytona at 200 mph, you now have one car piggy-backing onto another and racing in tandem.
It looked every strange during the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night (full story here) to see a car zipping around Daytona with another car’s nose stuck up its butt, much like one dog sniffing another.
NASCAR will apparently try to “fix” this before Thursday be changing the regulation concerning water temperature (I know, this has potential to get really confusing). The idea, apparently, is to ensure that the following car will have to break the tow of the car in front because to not do so will result in the engine overheating.
The other expected regulation change will have to do with the restrictor plate. The plates were opened up for last year’s Daytona 500 and the racing was better, even though the classic had to be stopped twice because of pavement problems.
Now, they might squeeze the amount of air going into the engine again to keep speeds below 200 mph (the piggyback cars were running more than 200).
Once upon a time, before the sanctioning bodies started screwing around like this, auto racing was pretty good. You wonder why they didn’t just leave well enough alone.
– Danny Hamlin’s removeable steering wheel came off when he started his qualifying run yesterday, resulting in an embarrassing trip into the infield grass. It happens. But drivers are supposed to check those things before leaving the pits. If not them, who?
– Hamlin, by the way, won the Budweiser Shootout Saturday night but was disqualified for driving below the yellow line. Ryan Newman pushed him down there. Hamlin said he went below the line rather than rubbing fenders with Newman and maybe launching Newman’s car into the grandstands. He suggested that he won’t be such a Mr. Nice Guy if he’s in a position to win the Daytona 500.
Memo to NASCAR: When the white flag flies, throw out the rulebook. If a guy goes below the yellow line, so what? Otherwise, there might be a huge crash and when race cars start flying around at 200 mph, anything can happen.
You want an exciting finish, or a disaster? Take your pick.
– For at least the last two years, the rumour mill has been in overdrive concerning the relationship between Tony Stewart and Syracuse-area sprint car driver Jessica Zemken. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Stewart let it be known that the two are, in fact, dating. Ain’t that sweet?
– Mark Martin will start his 759th Cup race when he takes the green for the Daytona 500. Amazing.
– This is how stupid the whole locked-in points system is. I mentioned earlier that Steve Wallace is a guaranteed starter in the Daytona 500 with no Cup experience and a less-then-stellar minor-league career. (Being Rusty’s kid helps, doesn’t it?) In any event, this is what modern-day racing has come to. Said Steven yesterday:
“We’re locked into the 500, so speed doesn’t mean a lot to us.”
Gee, I thought speed was what racing and the Daytona 500 were all about.
– More and more, Cup racers are so media trained that they don’t listen to the question before spouting out an answer. Ace SPEED pit reporter Dick Berggren asked Juan Montoya about the two-car draft and Montoya went into a spiel about how his one car was behaving. Dr. Dick did not look pleased when the interview ended.
By the way, I have a feeling that Montoya is on the bubble so far as his NASCAR career is concerned. He's not winning and his surly manner is growing tiresome.
– It’s not NASCAR but it’s traditionally the NASCAR curtain-raiser during Speed Weeks in Daytona so we’ll put it in here anyway.
Bobby Gerhart won his seventh ARCA 200 at Daytona on Saturday. He started fifth and drove a smart, smart race.
Poor Steve Arpin of Fort Frances, Ont., just can’t catch a break. I hope the sponsor he’s been courting for years, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, is patient because if Steve didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all.
He was cruising along in 14th position on Saturday, after qualifying third, when the car in front of him wabbled. Arpin tried to go low to avoid what looked like the beginning of a wreck and, instead, ran into a car being driven by Indy car refugee Milka Duno (who was driving a very good race – she was up to 12th after starting 23rd).
The ensuing “big one” eliminated Arpin, Duno and a bunch of others. Nobody was hurt but a little more of Arpin’s dream died.
Terry Jones of Amherstburg, Ont., finished 39th after his engine failed. He’d qualified 18th.
And Maryeve Dufault, of Sorel, Que., was 28th after starting 24th. She ran a couple of NASCAR Canadian Tire Series races in 2010.
– AIM Autosport of Woodbridge will run BMW engines in its Daytona Prototype sports car for the rest of the Grand Am Rolex season, which will include a stop at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal in August.
After skipping the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the second straight year, the team announced late last week that drivers Mark Wilkins of Toronto and American Burt Frisselle will return to race the car. More on this in a future post.
– Who said racing was a young man’s game? Steve Kinser – who’s what? 100? – won both opening World of Outlaws sprint car races in Florida at the weekend. He had a hard time on Friday night holding off Sammy Swindell, who’s what? 90?
Sammy, earlier, won the All-Star Circuit of Champions season opener. And, as we all know, he lost the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals feature a few weeks ago by just a few feet to his son, Kevin.
Are those guys drinking Geritol, or what?
– Nick Heidfeld is being auditioned by Lotus-Renault to take the place of the injured Robert Kubica. Nick Heidfeld? Please. Are there not other, better, drivers out there? What about Nico Hulkenberg? (I know; he'd got a deal with Force India but those things can be fixed.)
Having said that, I suggest that as soon as Kubica is able to get out of the hospital that he will be agitating to get back in the car. Racing drivers can’t bear the thought of losing their seat and will do everything in their power to stay in it.
Despite the severity of his injuries, I'll wager that Kubica is back before we know it.