1. Edwards wins race, Danica Patrick gets headlines
2. Ecclestone’s rain idea stolen from my friend Dave
3. Toronto driver wins two sports car races
1. It’s all Danica, all the time
It’s pretty safe to say for sure that 2011 will be the last for Danica Patrick in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
She’ll move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2012, now that she’s proved – again – that she’s not just a pretty face behind the wheel of a big-league race car.
Her fourth-place finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas on Saturday (won by Mark Martin – full story here) was earned and deserved.
She qualified 22nd in the 43-car field and fell behind two laps at one point but excellent pit strategy on the part of her team and excellent race-craft on her part, particularly toward the end of the race when she went wheel-to-wheel with several cars on her march to the front, paid off with the best finish ever recorded by a woman in a NASCAR-sanctioned race.
To her credit, Patrick said her fourth place was nice but that she has bigger fish to fry. "I’m out there to win," she said afterward.
How can I be so confident that she’ll definitely make the move to NASCAR?
Because the Danica Show is back on TV, big-time.
When she first showed up a year ago February in Daytona, the reporters couldn’t get enough of her. NASCAR promoted her big-time, almost to the point of irritation.
But when she didn’t do all that well, and then went off to INDYCAR to fulfill her contract in that series, the focus and attention on her pretty much died down. And even this year in Daytona, the TV announcers and the writers – while mentioning her from time to time – didn’t make that big a deal out of her.
All that changed Saturday afternoon. From about the mid-point of that race, which Brad Keselowski was dominating, the ESPN crew led by play-by-play man Marty Reid and colour commentator Dale Jarrett literally didn’t talk about anything else but Danica.
And when the post-race stories were posted on websites and filed to newspapers, the headlines on them all said "Danica Patrick finishes fourth."
Except for the trucks, which will be racing at Darlington next weekend, NASCAR has a weekend off and won’t race again till the bull-ring at Bristol in two weeks.
If you tune in for the coverage, don’t be surprised where the focus will be.
Mark Martin won that race, by the way. Keselowski blew out a right-front tire on the last lap and went into the wall. He managed to keep going to finish third.
In the Sunday Sprint Cup race, Carl Edwards was first, followed by Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya (full story here).
As is the case with most races at Las Vegas, it was kinda boring.
Tony Stewart led most of the laps but he ran over an air hose during a pit stop (how can that happen?) and was penalized. Then decisions by his crew on whether to change two tires or four backfired and he wound up about two seconds behind the winner.
He was not amused.
Last week’s winner, Jeff Gordon, crashed out. Defending series champion Jimmy Johnson finished 16th.
Speaking of Johnson, his crew chief, Chad Knaus, had dinner over the weekend with – guess who? - Danica Patrick (who’s hired Johnny Benson to be her driver coach).
Although she’ll be moving to the Cup series next year, she doesn’t yet have a team.
So the courting has begun.
2. Eccleston’s rain idea stolen from my friend Dave
On March 12, 2003 – which is eight years ago – I wrote the following words in my Toronto Star Wheels column:
"My pal Dave Morton used to drive one of my race cars. Actually, crash one of my race cars would be more accurate but we don’t want to nit-pick.
"Dave, who is known to his friends as "Nutsy," has some definite opinions when it comes to the state of Formula One auto racing. Dave does not discriminate: he is a fan of every class of racing. But he’s particularly passionate about F1 and he’s been saying for years that all it has to do to make the races more interesting is to water down the track surface.
" 'Before they start any race,' he says, 'they should dump water all over the circuit. Then, when it dries up, they should stop the race and dump water all over it again. The skill of the drivers, rather than how good the car is, would then determine the winner.' "
Several years later, Frank Williams said this about the never-ending tweaking of F1 rules:
"The rule that is needed the most is that every Grand Prix will be sprinkled with rain at least once."
A couple of years ago, I read a "Lunch with" interview in Motorsport Magazine in which John Watson was asked what he would do to spice up the F1 show and his answer was – you guessed it – a little rain on every race wouldn’t hurt.
These days you can’t call up a racing website without finding a story quoting Bernie Ecclestone as saying that artificial rain showers should be created to fall once or twice during every Grand Prix.
What’s terrifying – and I really mean it, terrifying – is that the Pirelli Tire Company is saying that it’s a terrific idea and they wouldn’t have any trouble at all coming up with a special tire for just such occasions.
Now, when my pal Dave Morton said this eight years ago, it was hilarious. Every time after that got a little less amusing. When Ecclestone started talking about this two weeks ago, I rolled my eyes, But now we have the F1 tire supplier saying, on the record, that this is a good idea?
Has everybody gone nuts?
You know, the most popular sport in the world is soccer (football) and it’s the same game with the same rules that’s been played just about forever. You try to kick a ball into a goal.
The National Football League is the biggest sport in North America. Although the game has evolved from a running game to essentially one of passing, and rules are periodically tweaked in the interests of safety (you can’t hit the quarterback, no hits to the head), the game of professional football is pretty much as it’s always been. Same with baseball, hockey and so-on.
So how come the people who run racing keep messing with it?
Take NASCAR. Once upon a time, not too many years ago, a Plymouth would win a Winston Cup race and on Monday morning everybody would go out and buy Plymouths. Or Chevrolets. Or Fords. And the drivers were all characters. Alan Kulwicki won his first race at Phoenix and drove the wrong way around the track in celebration, explaining later that it was a "Polish victory lap." Or Dick Trickle, who won the Winston Cup rookie-of-the-year title in 1989 at the age of 48 thanking, at the Victory Banquet in New York that December, NASCAR for the opportunity "on behalf of all us young guys."
Now, the cars all look the same and the drivers all look and talk like they have MBAs and NASCAR wonders where its audience went.
Once upon a time in F1, the only thing you might find on a steering wheel was the driver’s hands. Now, there are so many buttons and switches that the drivers are worried they might press the wrong one in a moment of crisis.
And the guy who runs the series muses in one conversation about letting cars take shortcuts at certain times during races and in another about artificial rain showers (an idea, no doubt, stolen from my friend Dave Morton, who was being facetious).
One of these days, they’re going to mess with it so much they’re going to ruin it.
Here’s a radical idea: determine the engine size, and the length, width and height of the car and the tire size, and leave everything else alone.
That way, the drivers would have to race. And isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?
3. Toronto driver wins two sports car races, Toronto team fourth in first Grand Am start
Toronto's Paul Dalla Lana teamed up with Bill Auberlin on Saturday to win the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Kia 200 on the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida (full story here).
This followed by several hours their victory in the GT class in the Grand Prix of Miami Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series race.
This was only the second time in the history of the Grand Am that drivers have scored double victories on the same day.
Other Canadians in the top 10 in the Continental race: Scott Maxwell of Toronto sixth; Ashley McCalmont of Ancaster, ninth.
Meantime, although the seemingly unbeatable Grand Am Rolex Daytona Prototype team of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Grand Prix (full story here), the AIM Autosport team from Woodbridge finished fourth and it almost felt like a victory.
After missing the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and with limited pre-season testing (an afternoon at a road course in Georgia on the way down to Florida), the AIM team with drivers Mark Wilkins of Toronto and American Burt Frisselle just missed the podium when the car started to lose grip in the closing laps.
"It’s very encouraging," said Frisselle afterward. "We’re still playing a bit of catch-up because of our lack of experience with the Continental tires (new to the series this season) but we’ll keep chipping away."
Said Wilkins: "Burt did a great job, driving hard and staying out of trouble. (Team co-owner) Ian Willis and the boys gave us a great car."
Added Willis: The (BMW) engine was delivered just 15 days ago and everyone did a huge amount of work to get us here."
Next on the Rolex schedule is Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala., on April 7-9.
That race will be a double-header with the IZOD IndyCar Series, which will start its season in St. Petersburg on March 27, the same day F1 gets going in Australia. (I wonder if Bernie, leather helmet and all, will go up in some WWI bi-plane and seed the clouds?)
Speaking of INDYCAR, Speed TV’s Robin Miller reported last night that it looks like James Hinchcliffe of Oakville will be driving for the famous Newman-Haas team in this year’s IZOD series. No official announcement yet but it would be great if it happens.
The American le Mans Series 12 Hours of Sebring will go to the post in two weeks with two Canadians – Tony Burgess of Toronto and Kyle Marcelli of Barrie – signed to drive.
Soon, something other than NASCAR.