Reminder Of What It’s Like Being A Race Fan

When you spend your weekends pitting race cars all across the country, you end up talking to a lot of race fans. With the drivers so busy with appearances and the like, the crews have become the next best attraction. The conversations are often short and usually consist of the same basic questions. How do the lug nuts stay on the wheel? What’s the colored tape on the tires for? How much does a tire weigh? But a recent extended conversation with a fan brought me right back to my own days as a race fan.

Working in the sport for an extended period of time changes one’s perspective. It certainly has changed mine. There is a ton of drama and bulls**t that we all deal with on a daily basis and it’s easy to get caught up in it. It’s not hard to allow some cynicism to sneak into your outlook. Sometimes we could all use a reminder about what exactly it is we do as a career.

For the sake of anonymity I won’t reveal a ton about the fan or our conversation. But I will say that we spent a good deal of time talking about this person’s first experience in the infield and what it was like collecting hero cards, strolling through the garage area, watching qualifying from pit road, and chasing down drivers for photos and autographs.

This person’s enthusiasm for the sport was on display and it reminded me of how excited I once was to do many of the same things. I’m not the same kind of fan of NASCAR that I once was, but my passion for the sport is probably deeper now than it’s ever been.

Like those of you that (still) read this blog, I long to be at the race track. During the week when I’m not there I’m occupied by what I need to do the next time I am. And when we roll into Homestead in a few weeks, I will be completely heart-broken that I’ll have to wait three months before my next trip to the track.

I know we’ve done a crappy job with the blog this season, and for that I apologize. After four years of nearly daily posting, both myself and my partner were flat burned out. We talked at length on several occasions about how to keep the site going, but in the end it was easier to just not do anything. I can’t make any promises about what will happen going forward, but I will say that I’ve got ideas for a couple of posts that you will see in the next few days.

As for my conversation with the race fan, all I can say is thanks. The perspective helped me more than you will know.

Why The Dodge Deal Isn’t Done Yet

One of the biggest Silly Season moves that we are waiting to hear a resolution for is  just where Dodge will end up. Since it was announced that Penske would be moving to Ford for the 2013 season, there have been a ton of rumors and speculation, but no real solid information. And the reason why we haven’t heard anything substantive, is because this is a very complicated deal with so many moving parts.

The major problem Dodge is running into with the available pool of teams is a lack of infrastructure. As NASCAR teams have consolidated because of the economy, the major functions of engine and car building have fallen on only a few organizations. The engines for most of NASCAR are provided by either Roush Yates, Hendrick, Earnhardt Childress, Penske, or TRD. The same is true for bodies and chassis. Only the very top teams have full-fledged, completely self-reliant operations. And the teams that have been linked to the new Dodge deal are tied in some way to other organizations.

Take Richard Petty Motorsports and Furniture Row Racing for example. Both have been mentioned as possible destinations for Dodge, but both currently lean heavily on other teams. RPM gets all it’s cars and engines from Roush Fenway, and Furniture Row Racing is tied to Richard Childress Racing for cars and technology, and Stewart-Haas for its pit crew. Neither have the legions of fabricators, body hangers, painters, and the like to be self-reliant. And where would they get engines?

The oft-rumored move by Michael Andretti to NASCAR team ownership presented an intriguing option for Dodge, but the IndyCar owner recently told the Indianapolis Star that such a move was “highly unlikely.” Even with money and support from Dodge, Andretti would need a major sponsor and a serious outlay of his own cash to get a Cup team off the ground. Running a NASCAR team is drastically more expensive than what Andretti deals with in IndyCar, as Roger Penske recently said to Sports Illustrated, and it appears Andretti isn’t ready for that yet.

Dodge is, for all intents and purposes, completely starting over. It’s the year 2000 all over again, only this time they don’t have Ray Evernham and a boat load of cash. And therein lies the major problem. The new Fiat run Dodge wants a NASCAR program, but it doesn’t have an unlimited budget to make it happen. And a significant investment is what will be needed to turn one of the available candidates into a full-blown, self-contained Cup operation.

Allmendinger’s NASCAR Career Is Effectively Over

Since we broke the news on Twitter before Saturday night’s race that A.J. Allmendinger was being replaced by Sam Hornish, the Dinger’s world has come apart. NASCAR announced he had failed a drug test, and Allmendinger has since requested the B sample be tested and admitted he tested positive for a stimulant. Penske has tabbed Hornish to again pilot the #22 Dodge this weekend at Loudon, but beyond that we don’ t know. If Allmendinger isn’t able to work this out with NASCAR, and is indeed out for an extended period of time, it is very likely that his career in NASCAR is all but over.

Before this season Allmendinger sought, and was granted his release from Richard Petty Motorsports to pursue the Penske opening. He was signed to replace Kurt Busch, but only to a one year deal. Dinger would serve as a stop gap for Penske until they could either find another driver, or Allmendinger flourished.

Unfortunately for A.J. though, this season has not gone well. His 23rd spot in the points combined with an average finish of 20.6 meant his chances of retaining the 22 seat were probably not good anyway. But now with a failed drug test on his record, there is no way Penske keeps him, barring some sort of miraculous reversal by NASCAR.

So now, with the failed test and a marginal record on track, his career options will be extremely limited. No big team or sponsor will take a chance on him, which leaves the start-and-park teams, or a move to a different (and probably lower) series.

For a guy that only a few years ago appeared to have huge potential, it really is a shame. Whether he knowingly ingested something banned or not, we are all responsible for what we put into our bodies. In any case, I hope he is able to get this worked out and get back on his feet.

BREAKING: Kenseth Out At Roush; To Gibbs

Sources are telling TNI, Roush Fenway executives announced to the organization today that Matt Kenseth would be leaving the team at the end of the season.

Despite earlier rumors that Penske would be Kenseth’s destination, all signs indicate Joe Gibbs Racing as the driver’s future home. What that means for the Gibbs teams is not entirely clear. The team does have room for expansion.

Roush has struggled this season to secure full sponsorship for the one time Sprint Cup Series champion and 22-time winner. With money tight, we are hearing Roush was unwilling to offer the contract the 40-year-old Kenseth was seeking.

We will keep you posted as we get more details.

Continued Performance, Not One Win, Will Save Logano

Before Pocono, all the talk about Joey Logano was that he may be on his way out of a Cup ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. Following a win from the pole on Sunday, the discussion about Logano is now about how the win saved his ride. But I’m not convinced that is the case.

2012 is a contract year for Logano, and as is so often the case with athletes in contract years, Logano’s performance has improved this season. His average start and average finish are the best of his career, and he has led almost as many laps this season as all of last. And the Pocono win is his first legitimate one as a Cup driver.

But as much as one win is good, Home Depot is a signature sponsor that wants a signature driver. Finishing 24th in the standings as Logano did last season is not what you expect out of a signature driver. Teams can’t sell wins, because they aren’t guaranteed, but when a sponsor gets involved with a team like JGR, they expect a certain level of performance. Before Pocono, Logano had not delivered.

On the strength of this win, Logano needs to start running well consistently. He doesn’t need to win every race, but showing that he is moving in the right direction is what will save his ride. Realizing the potential of “Sliced Bread” and showing that he could legitimately challenge for a Chase spot is key.

What’s interesting is that even if Logano was dropped from the 20, it is likely that he would stay with JGR. A step back to full time Nationwide, a la Sam Hornish and Penske, would probably be the result. JGR has a lot invested in Logano and it seems they aren’t ready to give up on him completely.

Either way, Logano’s future will not be decided by one good race in the Pennsylvania mountains, but by continued performance over the coming weeks.

We Lost A Big Hat on Sunday

Jimmie Johnson won the race on Sunday and edged a little closer to the points lead, but I think the bigger story was something that happened off the track. After 30 years on pit road, reporter Dr. Dick Berggren retired, making Dover his last race.

Berggren, like so many broadcasting greats who came before him  symbolized Sunday through his reassuring voice, encyclopedic knowledge and that familiar flat cap. Through the changing times and personalities, Berggren brought consistency throughout. Tune in on Sunday and there was a good chance he was going to be there.

Berggren, a psychologist by trade found his passion on the short tracks of New England, racing himself for the better part of two decades. He later founded one of motorsports’ publications of record, Speedway Illustrated. In 1981, at Dover International Speedway, Berggren began his TV broadcasting career for ESPN.

And so it was on Sunday, Berggren made his last appearance on a NASCAR broadcast at Dover, some 32 years later.

Berggren was (and still is) a consummate professional, weekly toting around extensive research on each team. It’s fair to say he was the best informed and easily one of the best liked figures in the garage.

Sunday won’t be the same without Dick Berggren, but this is a moment that was well earned. We wish him and his wife Kathy, a happy semi-retirement and many years of enjoyable Friday nights at short tracks throughout the northeast.

Furniture Row Continues To Progress

Since coming to the Cup Series in 2005, Furniture Row Racing has grown into its current form gradually. Over the first several years of their existence, poor finishes and DNQs were the norm. But owner Barney Visser stayed the course, and with Regan Smith at the wheel, the team has gained respectability. Their first taste of victory came last season at Darlington, and that earned relevance has Furniture Row at the center of expansion rumors.

It was reported early in May that Furniture Row had spoken with Kurt Busch about possibly driving a second car next season, and they’ve been mentioned as a possible destination for Dodge. Some serious obstacles would have to be overcome if they moved to Dodge, but Competition Director Mark McArdle has previous experience with the manufacturer.

Being located in Denver, Colo., Furniture Row faces unique challenges. They are not completely self-sufficient, as they currently get cars and technical support from Richard Childress Racing, and engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing. Attracting talented mechanics away from the Charlotte area has been tough, but they’ve made inroads over the last few seasons.

And now, with expansion becoming a serious possibility, Furniture Row is looking at taking another farmed out part of their race team in-house: their pit crew. For the last few years, Furniture Row’s pit crew has been provided by Stewart-Haas Racing. The crew practices and trains at SHR’s shop, and then dons Furniture Row gear for race day. The catch? SHR can pull any member of the crew at any moment if needed.

For next season however, Furniture Row has approached several crew guys about the possibility of moving to Denver and being a part of their first serious attempt at an in-house crew. Doing so would be another step towards complete autonomy in Denver, but it might be tough trying to lure six, and possibly twelve, of the more experienced crew guys out west.

Whatever happens, Furniture Row has shown it’s not far from being a real contender week in and week out. And it’s refreshing to see an owner really commit to investing in the future of his race team, and on his own dime no less.

New All-Star Format Fell Short

Sandbagging (verb): To hold back; what happened Saturday night at the Sprint All-Star race.

The collective oxygen this morning is being taken up with discussion about what happened Saturday night. A new format and $1 million on the line led the winner of the race to sandbag his way to the end.

NASCAR in its almost yearly revision of the All-Star race rules decided this year to give the winners of each segment of the race an upfront spot for the last 10 lap segment. This led to a great first segment, a slightly less exciting second, third and fourth segment followed by a finish that disappointed immensely.

The real story out of this was race winner Jimmie Johnson who, after winning the first segment, took to trying not to get lapped for the 70 laps that followed until the final segment.

NASCAR set up rules that not only encouraged this behavior but guaranteed it was going to occur. Why would I take a chance I’m going to wreck my equipment when I’m guaranteed a spot at the front for the last ten laps? Johnson said after the race:

“That’s going to be tough for me to knock the system after how our night went because it just worked out exactly how we’d hoped.”

And therein lies the conundrum. NASCAR changes the rules in an attempt to make things more interesting and teams immediately find ways to game the system thereby doing the exact opposite.

I think Johnson was without a doubt the best car on the track Saturday night and would have won regardless of whether he ran upfront all night or sandbagged the entire way. Still, I think the rule changes cheapened Johnson’s win and fell short of creating a more exciting event.

2012 Charlotte Race Weeks Events Guide

Welcome to TNI’s annual look at things to do in Charlotte during All-Star and Coke 600 weeks.

If you’re in town, or on your way, below is a list of things for you to do while you’re here. If you know of an event occurring in town not listed please feel free to add it in the comments.

We hope you enjoy your time in the Queen City!

Daily Events

Thursday, May 17 – The Sprint Pit Crew Challenge is one of my favorite events of race weeks in Charlotte and if you love NASCAR, you’re sure to love this event. Enjoy the Pit Crew Challenge at Time Warner Cable Arena in Uptown Charlotte. Click here for more information.

Thursday, May 17 & Friday, May 18 – Check out racing at Concord, N.C.’s other racetrack, the Concord Speedway. See a full list of events here.

Friday, May 18 – Enjoy an outdoor showing of the movie 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story on a beautiful Carolina evening in Kannapolis. Find out more information here.

Saturday, May 19 – Mooresville, N.C.’s annual Race City Festival takes over the streets of historic Downtown Mooresville. Enjoy music, live entertainment, local merchants and artisans and food. More here.

Thursday, May 24 – Saturday, May 26 – Food Lion Speed Street – Don’t miss this favorite event for fans and Charlotteans alike. See great musical acts like Easton Corbin, Clay Walker and Loverboy, get autographs from your favorite drivers and pick up some swag. All events are free. The event takes place in Uptown Charlotte. For a complete list of events, click here.

Wednesday, May 23 – Michael Waltrip Racing Fanfest – SiriusXM will be live broadcasting from this event featuring booths of team partners, a free poster, team transporters and prizes. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis beginning Monday, May 21 at 9 a.m. More info here.

Thursday, May 24 – Roush Fenway Racing’s Annual Fan Day – See show cars, the team shop, sponsor booths and meet Jack Roush and select team drivers. Tickets for autograph sessions are available beginning at 8 a.m. day of. More info here.

Thursday, May 24 – Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Fan Day – See the EGR shop and meet team drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray. Wristbands are required for autographs and are available to reserve now. More info here.

Friday, May 25 – Richard Childress Racing Fan Day – Check out the Childress Museum, see the team’s shop, get autographs and end your day with a concert at Childress Vineyards. Tickets are required for the autograph sessions and will be distributed beginning at 9 a.m. the day of. More info here.

Friday, May 25 – Hendrick Motorsports Fan Fest – Check out the shops of all your favorite Hendrick drivers and get their autographs. A limited number are available beginning at 11 a.m. on the day of the event. More info here.

Friday, May 25 – JR Motorsports Fan Day – Open house activities including an autograph session Friday. Tickets for the autograph session (including drivers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) are free – a donation of a pet item or canned food item is requested – and are distributed beginning Monday, May 21. More info here.

Friday, May 25 - There’s no racing at the big track on Friday, so head over to the Dirt Track at Charlotte across the street and check out the Circle K NOS Energy Outlaw Showdown with all your favorite WOO stars. Click here.

Saturday, May 26 - Check out racing at Hickory Motor Speedway, the “birthplace of NASCAR stars.” More info here.

Autograph Sessions

From Timothy Peters and Jeff Burton to Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott, chances are if you have a favorite driver, you can get their autograph sometime these weeks. Find a complete list here.

Ongoing Entertainment

Race Shop Tours – Get a map and enjoy driving around the North Carolina Piedmont to see all of your favorite team shops. More info here.

Lancaster’s – Looking for good barbecue and a racing atmosphere? Lancaster’s has a ton of racing memorabilia – you can even eat in a converted school bus painted like Dale Earnhardt’s Wrangler ride. More info here.

Go-Kart Racing in the QC – Want to do some racing of your own? Check out the NASCAR Speedpark at Concord Mills, Victory Lane Karting in Charlotte and The Pit Indoor Karting in Mooresville.

NASCAR Hall of Fame – The two-year-old NASCAR Hall of Fame in Center City Charlotte, is a 150,000-square-foot interactive, entertainment attraction honoring the history and heritage of NASCAR. More info here.

Occoneechee Speedway – Take a day trip up to Hillsborough, North Carolina to see the Occoneechee Speedway (formerly the Orange Speedway). It is the only remaining dirt track from the 1949 season. It is heavily overgrown, but the Historic Speedway Group has converted the track into a walking trail and reconstructed some of the out buildings. It is free and definitely worth the trip if you enjoy NASCAR history.

Memory Lane Museum - A neat museum with a ton of cool, old race cars and racing memorabilia. $10 entry fee. More info here.

North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame – Located across the street from Roush Fenway’s old Mooresville shop, the NCARHOF has  interesting cars and artifacts chronicling North Carolina’s motorsports history. They have a $6 entry fee. Don’t forget to check out the Walk of Fame in Downtown Mooresville too. More info here.

Driver Haunts – Want to eat at some favorites of NASCAR crew members and drivers? Check out Vinnie’s Raw BarHickory Tavern, and Big Daddy’s in Mooresville, The Rusty Rudder in Cornelius, and Fox and Hound and Red Rocks in Huntersville.

Looking for other non-NASCAR related things to do? Check out the Charlotte Observer’s event guide and

Kurt Busch Is In The 51 For A Reason

There was a post yesterday over at SB Nation, written by Jordan Bianchi, that was titled “If I Were A NASCAR Owner, I’d Hire Kurt Busch.” In it, Bianchi makes a case for why a big time owner should hire Kurt Busch, despite his very recent and past problems. His main point is that Busch is a proven race winner and a championship contender and his performance on track is enough to look past his behavior. The problem is though, that teams and sponsors don’t agree.

In the new economy, and the hopefully rebounding world of NASCAR sponsorship, all companies are looking for is a return on their sponsorship dollars. As a team, you can’t sell a sponsorship based heavily on performance, because performance isn’t guaranteed. If winning races and contending for championships was all sponsors cared about, Matt Kenseth wouldn’t have open slots on his schedule, and JTG-Daugherty and Front Row Motorsports would not still be in a business. Winning is great, but it isn’t everything.

When you pour $10, $15, or $20 million into a NASCAR marketing program that is based around a driver, there isn’t a company on this planet that would be happy about their driver going on F-bomb laced tirades that show up on YouTube. You might get away with one. Kurt Busch has several. Companies can’t afford to be associated with that type of behavior, edgy or not.

And don’t you think the fact that both Jack Roush and Roger Penske threw their hands in the air and said “no mas” with this guy is a serious affirmation of his character? They both decided, regardless of his performance, that he was too much of a liability to keep.

Busch has been mentioned recently as a possible replacement in the #20 if Joey Logano gets released from JGR. He’s also been rumored to be a candidate for RCR’s #31 if Richard Childress decides to let Jeff Burton go at season’s end. But let’s be realistic here, why would either organization bring him into the mix? JGR already has enough problems with one Busch brother, who last season nearly lost his ride because of his ridiculous behavior. Word is it took some serious negotiating to get sponsor M&M’s to agree to keep Kyle in the #18 for this year. There is no way they’d want to double up on their Busch risk. And if Richard Petty Motorsports couldn’t sell Kurt Busch, what makes anyone think JGR and RCR could, or would even want to try?

There comes a point when owners and sponsors have to decide what’s best for the future of their companies. With every incident and outburst, Kurt Busch pushes himself further and further from the top. These well publicized incidents are not isolated with Busch. It’s a pattern of behavior that reveals what his character really is. There are plenty of other ultra-competitive drivers out there who manage to win races and championships without getting in confrontations with the media, and slinging profanity at their teams when things don’t go well.

Competitive or not, Busch is in the unsponsored Phoenix #51 for a reason. Teams have drawn the line of what is tolerable behavior, and Busch might not ever make it back.

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