It was one of those weekends why we dig this sport. The unexpected happened, which is one of the most appealing aspects of motor racing.
Here are the facts after the Kobalt Tools 500 Sunday at Phoenix: Hamlin leads four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson by 15 points entering the season finale this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick is third, 46 points behind. It’s the closest three-way Chase with one race remaining.
Muzzle the mouth or walk the walk, Mike.
Now to the opinions. It might be a good idea for Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, to keep a low profile heading into South Florida this week. Ford crowed after the Texas race Nov. 7 that crew chief Chad Knaus may have lost a fifth consecutive title for Johnson by essentially firing Johnson’s crew mid-race and replacing it with the crew of Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.
The end result was that Hamlin is rattled. He ripped his team after the race by saying, “Like I said, I did my job.” Not exactly a rousing vote of confidence or rallying of the beleaguered troops by a wise veteran. More of the impetuous Denny we thought had grown up. And at just the wrong time.
Hamlin pledges a pedal-to-the-metal approach at Homestead. He’s going to need it, as there are only two guaranteed routes to the championship for him, either winning the race or finishing second and leading the most laps.
My money still remains on Johnson to hoist the Cup for the fifth straight year. Who is your pick, and why?
Judging by the feedback I received from the Nov. 8 edition of Splash And Go, it appears that the many dramatic subplots of the AAA 500 last Sunday weren’t enough to draw back those of you who have abandoned the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup this fall. Your attitude seems to match that of Kyle Busch to the NASCAR official during his stop-and-go penalty for pit road speeding last Sunday at Texas — the big, fat middle finger.
Guess many of you feel the same way about the Chase, which is too bad.
That’s a shame, as no one is going to convince me this isn’t a compelling Chase. The top three drivers within 59 points. Two races to go. Forget about the COT. Forget about the Chase system.
Four-time reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson trails leader Denny Hamlin by 33 points after Hamlin won last Sunday at Texas. But there are few better places for a JJ rebound than Phoenix, as he has won the last three fall races at The Desert Mile.
Hamlin is hot, as he’s racing no differently during the Chase than he did during the “regular season” — the dude is driving to win. So anyone Chase naysayers complaining about conservative “points racing” better not point to Hamlin. Oh, sorry, I’m on that soap box again.
And what about Kevin Harvick? He’s 59 points behind leader Hamlin, and Mike Mulhern suggests it might be a must-win situation for Happy this Sunday at Phoenix.
It should be vewwwy interesting, as Elmer Fudd would say.
NASCAR is in the midst of its most exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup since the inaugural year of the format, 2004, when just 16 points separated champion Kurt Busch, second place Jimmie Johnson and third place Jeff Gordon at the end of the season. Yet the endless bleating, soul-searching and head-scratching continues about NASCAR in reverse gear.
Make no mistake: NASCAR has problems. Declining TV ratings and race attendance. Top teams struggling for sponsorship. Yet it’s still the most popular form of motorsports in America, by far. Every other series in the U.S. would love to have NASCAR’s “problems.”
But can we just focus on the racing for the next three weeks? There are three races remaining in what has been a compelling Chase for the Sprint Cup. Four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson leads Denny Hamlin by just 14 points and Kevin Harvick by 38.
It’s high-octane drama, yet from Tuesday through Thursday of every race week during the Chase — after the race reports and analysis are out of the way by Monday and before the race previews and coverage start Friday — all I read about on NASCAR blogs and websites are theories and speculation about the root cause of the great withering of NASCAR. Dustin Long, who I read daily and whose work I admire greatly, even wrote that the close Chase could be hurting NASCAR.
Isn’t there a two-month offseason during which endless column inches and online bytes can be devoted to the Great NASCAR Decession? You know, when no actual racing is taking place?
A bit of housekeeping and two public service announcements before Splash And Go begins. Sorry for the lack of recent posts — I was splashing and going on vacation last week. And if you’re 18 or older and a U.S. citizen, please vote today. You lose your right to complain about your government if you don’t do anything about changing it. Finally, please help Hoosiers in need by donating to the 1 Lap, 1 Great Cause food drive at IMS.
On to racing.
Sorry, Carl, but Happy Harvick is too busy fighting to win the Sprint Cup
Talladega was an interesting show last Sunday for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but it wasn’t the decisive “wild-card” race many expected. All it did was reinforce that this is a three-man show with three races to go, as Jimmie Johnson leads Denny Hamlin by 14 points and Kevin Harvick by 38 points.
This is the kind of bandstand finish that NASCAR envisioned when it created the Chase. I’m starting to believe that Harvick can be the dark horse in this race and take it all, as he has the right attitude regarding the final three races: Top-10 finishes, simply staying out of trouble, don’t cut it.
Harvick also has a consistent, solid teammate to help him, Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin are too inconsistent to be solid wingmen for Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to be largely irrelevant. Kyle Busch is too much of a wild man and wild card to be much of a help for Hamlin, and Joey Logano is no factor.
Take a minute to think about Bowyer. He has won two of the seven races during the Chase. Yet he’s 12th and last in the Chase standings because of the 150-point penalty levied by NASCAR for driving an illegal car to victory lane in the Chase opener in September at Loudon.
Bowyer deserves applause. He’s driving hard, like a man with nothing to lose, despite being buried in the Chase because his car was out of whack by about the width of a hair. He’s the Chase’s version of the Buffalo Bills, still playing with intensity despite being 0-7.
The “Big One,” which ESPN’s announcers seemingly so desperately wanted to see last Sunday at Talladega, never really happened until A.J. Allmendinger’s wild ride on the final lap that precipitated the extending scoring review to determine Bowyer edged teammate Harvick for the victory.
But there was a massive wreck last Sunday in the DTM (German touring car) race at Adria, Italy. This looked every bit like a tumble-and-spin job from restrictor-plate racing, yet it was on a road course. Thankfully driver Alexandre Premat was OK:
The plunge off the ratings’ cliff is odd, because the racing has been very good this entire season, including the Chase. Even Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR’s generic prescription for Ambien, put on a very competitive race two weeks ago.
If you’ve tuned out the Chase on The Worldwide Leader in Sports this fall, you still should tune into ESPN tonight for what promises to be a fascinating 60 minutes of NASCAR programming. ESPN’s superb series of short documentaries, “30 For 30,” looks back at the life, legend and truths of Tim Richmond in “Tim Richmond: To The Limit” at 8 p.m. (ET) on ESPN and 11 p.m. (ET) on ESPN2.
The Last Rock and Roll Star: Tim Richmond
Richmond has sadly faded into the vanishing point of the rear-view mirror of NASCAR. This guy was an incredible force of nature and an incredible talent in Winston Cup racing during the 80s. He raced, partied and lived harder than most of the corporate automatons disguised as drivers today probably could ever dream. Imagine Kyle Busch’s speed and carefree talent mixed with the rock-star magnetism and lifestyle of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones or Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and you had Tim Richmond.
Much like James Hunt in F1, the number of Richmond’s laps led and ladies bedded ran side-by-side. But he had tremendous skill and huge attachments behind the wheel of a stock car and appeared headed to the high altitude of the legends of the sport before he contracted AIDS and died in 1989.
Want to see Richmond’s otherworldly talent encapsulated in one short video? Watch this below. Richmond is swallowing the field whole on a restart at North Wilkesboro while continuing to talk from his car with ESPN commentators in the booth after the green flag:
Due to his illness and the misconceptions associated with it, Richmond never has received his due from either NASCAR or its flag-waving, God-fearing fan base. Hopefully this documentary will help those who have forgotten or never knew about Richmond realize he was a rare supernova.
Watch this show tonight. Richmond is exactly the kind of character that corporate sponsors in 2010 never would bless even though racing needs talented showmen like him more than ever.
Back to racing 2010. It’s a quiet day in worldwide motorsport — a rarity during the season. But there’s still some news to chew on.
Is it a winner's trophy from Dover or Carl Edwards in a rage?
Jimmie Johnson is giving new meaning to the words embossed on the passenger-side mirrors on vehicles: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Johnson climbed to second place in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, just 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin, after his victory from the pole in the AAA 400 last Sunday at Dover.
But does anyone think Johnson isn’t the favorite to win his fifth straight title after this victory? Raise your hand. I think I see one or two brave palms in the back of the room.
One of those hands belongs to Dustin Long, who thinks the Chase starts this weekend at Kansas. Sorry, Dustin, I disagree, because last weekend at Dover was a microcosm of why Johnson and the entire No. 48 team are the best and won’t be topped.
Johnson won from the pole and led the most laps in the race. Meanwhile, points leader Hamlin engaged in a war of words with fellow Chaser Clint Bowyer over NASCAR’s penalties for Bowyer’s illegal car that he drove to victory lane Sept. 19 in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
Then Bowyer’s teammate, Kevin Harvick, defended the honor of Richard Childress Racing by bumping and sideswiping Hamlin in practice, which led to a shouting match in the garage between Harvick and Hamlin.
It was good theater and the kind of soap opera that NASCAR breeds every other week. Call it what you want, but it’s entertaining.
So the list of focused Chase drivers was down to nine before the race even started Sunday. Not a great strategy for trying to topple Johnson and Co. And a few of the Chasers had lousy races. Matt Kenseth finished 18th, Greg Biffle 19th and Tony Stewart 21st. Biffle is 140 points behind Hamlin, Stewart 162 and Kenseth 165.
Hamlin showed Friday that he doesn’t have the focus or maturity yet to lead a championship team when he spouted off about Bowyer’s penalties, which led to Harvick’s road rage during practice. Kyle Busch is third in points, just 45 behind Hamlin. But Rowdy’s mind is more erratic than Hamlin’s. Plus he still insists on running Nationwide and Truck races on event weekends, and I don’t care what anyone says: That distracts from and dilutes a Chase-winning effort.
Don’t believe me? How many Nationwide or Truck races has Johnson run down the Chase stretch in the last four seasons? You can probably count them on one hand.
The countdown is on for the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 this Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, after which either points leader Will Power or Dario Franchitti will be crowned the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series champion. Power leads Franchitti by just 12 points.
It’s pretty safe to say these cats are ready for Saturday night at Homestead. It should be a hell of a duel to the finish, but dramatic title races decided at the season finale are nothing new for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
The Firestone Indy Lights season ends Saturday at Homestead, with the name of rookie J.K. Vernay all but engraved on the championship trophy. Vernay leads second place James Hinchcliffe by 48 points and only needs to start the 100-mile race to win the title.
While there’s not much air in the title chase balloon for Lights this Saturday in South Florida, it will be nice to see Lights veterans Ana Beatriz and Sebastian Saavedra step up to the IZOD IndyCar Series in the big show Saturday night for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Conquest Racing, respectively.
It was all quiet on the MotoGP front last weekend, as the series is heading to Motegi for the Grand Prix of Japan this weekend. That race was postponed earlier this season when the Icelandic volcano forced the disruption of travel throughout Europe. Thanks to old Smoky Top, MotoGP now has three races in three consecutive weeks. Hell for the riders and teams, heaven for us MotoGP fans!
World Superbikes had a big weekend, though, as Max Biaggi clinched the 2010 championship at Imola. Meanwhile, Suzuki thanked Leon Haslam for chasing Biaggi all season by releasing him because the Alstare Suzuki team lacks sponsorship for 2011. Haslam, second in points this year, is expected to move to BMW.
This move also could have ramifications on MotoGP, as the fate of Suzuki’s MotoGP team apparently is under discussion at the home base in Japan. Suzuki has put a bucket of bolts on track in MotoGP for the last three seasons, but the championship still needs major manufacturers. Kawasaki left after 2008, and Suzuki could be gone soon. That would leave only Honda, Yamaha and Ducati in MotoGP, which is not good.
Webber and fellow title protagonist Lewis Hamilton made contact while fighting for third, and Hamilton was forced to the garage early for the second straight race. Webber survived to finish third behind Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
Parking early for the second straight race put a dent into Lew’s title hopes, as he’s 20 points behind Webber. Vettel is 21 points back in fourth, and reigning World Champ Jenson Button is 25 points behind in fifth. It’s a hell of a struggle among superstars with just four races remaining.
Or are there just three races left?
The debut Korean Grand Prix looks to be on shaky ground as the final layer of asphalt hasn’t been laid on the circuit, and the race is scheduled for Oct. 24! Yeah, Oct. 24 of this year. Even F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone, who shrugs off criticism of the lunacy of putting F1 races in countries with no motorsports heritage or infrastructure, is a bit worried about whether the Korean race can be pulled off.
Sorry for the late-evening version of Splash And Go, but I had to wait for the first practice results from Motegi. They’re in, and Will Power is on top of the time chart. His closest pursuer in the points, Dario Franchitti, was sixth.
Still, I think it’s only a matter of time until he earns his first oval victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series for Team Penske. Dario just hopes that time is next year.
I was stunned when I first saw the time sheet and noticed Takuma Sato was at the bottom, even beneath Milka Duno. Say it ain’t so at your home motor dojo, Taku-san. But then I read where Taku crashed after an oil line failure splurted oil on the tires, causing Sato to spin.
Good thing Taku is OK. It’s pretty safe to say that normal order will be restored, with Milka in the caboose. But you have to feel for Sato in front of his home crowd. And do you think KV Racing Technology has gold card credit status with Dallara for chassis repair yet this season?
While practice is underway at Motegi, it’s not too late to check out this humorous preview of the race at Pop Off Valve.
She's still an elite race driver, ladies and gents
Tony Johns of Pop Off Valve also takes on the white elephant in the room with the IZOD IndyCar Series, the future racing intent of 5-2, 100-pound Danica Patrick. Tony thinks IndyCar doesn’t need Danica anymore.
Sorry, Tony, but I beg to differ. Danica is the most popular driver in the series, has attracted countless fans of both genders to IndyCar and is a magnet for attention, good and bad. No one can force her to stay in the series if she wants to run NASCAR full time after her contract expires with Andretti Autosport, but to say the series doesn’t need her? That’s a big step off a very narrow ledge.
Johns brings up Danica’s relative lack of success — one victory in nearly six full seasons of IZOD IndyCar Series racing — and says her results don’t match her hype. Well, the stats don’t match the buzz for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR Sprint Cup, either, but he remains the most popular driver in that series by about six ZIP codes.
Sports is a personality-driven entertainment business now. People follow personalities more than results. But results are still a factor, and Danica gets it done at the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Five top-eight finishes in six career starts at the Brickyard. ‘Nuff said. She’s a plus for the series. Period.
On a final IndyCar note, it’s really heartening to see that Mike Conway is almost ready to climb back into the cockpit. This boggles my mind considering the ferocity of Mike’s wreck at Indy, but he’s trying to beat the clock to return to his Dreyer & Reinbold seat for the season finale Oct. 2 at Homestead. Dude’s a racer – what else can you say?
Hey, did you know the Chase starts this Sunday? THE CHASE! THE CHASE! I’m starting to sound like Herve Villechaize calling for the plane on “Fantasy Island.”
Mike Hembree at SPEEDtv.com wrote an interesting piece stating that sleepy, small Loudon is an odd place to conduct the first race of NASCAR’s postseason.
New England is a stronger racing bastion than one might think, and Nor’easter fans go especially nuts for the superb NASCAR Modified Tour, the most exciting division in NASCAR, in my opinion. But New England also is a pro stick-and-ball haven, with the Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox Nation inhaling most of the available media oxygen.
Still, that’s not stopping track president Jerry Gappens from beating the drum. Jerry is an Indiana native, so racing is in his veins. He also worked for the legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so the guy clearly knows how to sell and connect with fans.
The new Grand Prix of Aragon is underway in MotoGP, and the Motorland Aragon is one trippy racetrack, as this photo feature at motomatters.com shows. There are so many blind entrances to corners that I think Ray Charles and Jose Feliciano designed the circuit.
Dani Pedrosa was quickest overall as MotoGP returned to two Friday practice sessions. Pedrosa has been en fuego since Indianapolis and was rewarded with a new two-year deal with Honda. It will be very interesting to see how the notoriously fickle Pedrosa and his attack-dog manager, Alberto Puig, get along with Australian hard-ass and sometimes chronic complainer Casey Stoner next season in the Repsol Honda garage. Expect little love lost between the two.
James Toseland: Don't hate me because I'm beautiful, baby
Speaking of unloved men in motorcycle racing, it seems like James Toseland has alienated another teammate. American Colin Edwards couldn’t stand Toseland after Toseland orchestrated a swap of his crew chief with Edwards’ before the start of the 2009 MotoGP season. The Texas Tornado got the last laugh, as he clicked better with his new crew chief, Guy Coulon, and kicked Toseland’s ass so thoroughly that the Brit lost his ride and dropped back to World Superbike.
Well, it appears that Toseland’s WSBK teammate, fellow Brit Cal Crutchlow, also doesn’t have Toseland on his Christmas card list this year, either. Crutchlow was asked if he sought Toseland’s advice on MotoGP in advance of jumping to MotoGP in 2011 with Toseland’s old team, Monster Yamaha Tech 3. Crutchlow dropped a hammer on Toseland with his answer!
I sure hope Edwards remains at Monster Yamaha Tech 3 next season. The verbal volleys coming from that garage will look like Volkswagen Beetle-sized shells being fired from the USS Missouri.
In a very classy move Thursday, Moto2 points leader Toni Elias suggested in the pre-event press conference at Aragon that the Michel Metraux Trophy, presented to the best privateer rider of the season in the Moto2 class, should be presented to Shoya Tomizawa, who was killed in a Moto2 racing crash Sept. 5 at Misano.
Formula One is off this weekend, but the news and rumors never stop in the “pinnacle of motorsport,” as Nigel Mansell used to call it.
Joe Saward writes that it makes little sense for Renault to dance with Kimi Raikkonen despite reports that the Kimster and the French team are courting for 2011. Joe also throws cold water on the rumors that Lotus will switch to Toyota engines, instead writing that the shadow of the once-colossus fronted by Colin Chapman and Jim Clark will switch to Renault engines in 2011.
Sorry, but if a Cosworth DFV isn’t in the back, it’s not a real Lotus regardless of the paint job or team name.
Finally, Michael Schumacher is excited about the first night race of his career at Singapore on Sept. 26. Be careful what you wish for, Weltmeister: The spotlights of Singapore only will more brightly illuminate both the decline of your career and a possibly ham-fisted, lethal attempt by you to stuff a faster driver into the numerous concrete barriers of the street circuit.
Some fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series were a bit peeved last Friday when all three of the 1.5-mile International Speedway Corporation cookie-cutter tracks on this year’s schedule — Kansas, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami — were removed from the unfurled 2011 schedule.
A few of the series’ top drivers don’t share that sense of loss, according to a piece by John Oreovicz on ESPN.com. Let’s face it: IndyCars on 1.5-mile, high-banked tracks are the series’ version of restrictor-plate racing. It’s fun to watch, to a point. But it’s insanely dangerous. Put yourself in the cockpit for a bit, and you’ll see the drivers’ point of view.
Plus it will be nice to race at two ovals next season, Milwaukee and New Hampshire, where the brake graphic actually will illuminate during in-car shots on the TV broadcast. I squirmed and squealed with delight over many of the races over the last decade on 1.5-mile tracks, especially the heart-stoppers during the epic 2002 season.
But after a while, I do start to wonder about the constant drone of engines wide open for the entire race minus pit stops. Is a race where the brake never is used except in the pits really a test of a driver’s total ability? It’s an unreal test of their courage and sanity, no doubt. But I’m ready for the flat, short ovals next season.
Another proponent of the brake pedal for IndyCars is three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser. I’ve heard Uncle Bobby say more than once that he thinks either horsepower should be increased or enough downforce removed from the current cars so drivers need to use the brakes entering Turns 1 and 3 at Indianapolis again, as in his day.
Bobby also is the subject of today’s “Gasoline Alley Unplugged” segment with IMS Historian Donald Davidson. This series, in which Donald offers audio commentary on a photo from the IMS archives, is superb. You really need to check it out now and daily if you haven’t yet. Donald is a gentleman and a genius, an irreplaceable part of IMS.
There’s not always a lot of overlap between the NASCAR and IndyCar world, except for maybe when Danica Patrick makes her sojourns to the Nationwide Series. So it’s nice to see the open-wheel set get some attention from the stock car media, such as this solid feature on IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard’s first six months on the job by Fanhouse NASCAR blogger Geoffrey Miller.
Hey, and there’s even more crossover. Joe Menzer at NASCAR.com conducted a good interview with Penske Racing President Tim Cindric, who oversees the IndyCar and NASCAR operations of the iconic team. Cindric is one of the sharpest cats in the racing business and a fine Indiana boy. I don’t think The Captain needs to look far to see his mirror image of class, professionalism, attention to detail and competitive spirit when he decides to step away from racing.
But enough of the overlap. What about THE CHASE? THE CHASE! THE CHASE!
The hype machine for NASCAR’s postseason — Brian France hates that term, but let’s face it: That’s what it is — is in top gear heading into New Hampshire. The analysis, dicing and slicing is almost done by the media, and some reporters and bloggers are making their predictions for this year’s Cup champion. Dustin Long is hanging ten on the momentum wave of Denny Hamlin, while All Left Turns is taking the conservative tack by picking a successful drive for five by Jimmie Johnson. Same with Terry Blount at ESPN.com, who even lays odds on the contenders. I’ll put an Andrew Jackson on Tony Stewart at 20-1!
One of the flaws of the Chase is that the other 31 drivers in the 10 Chase races usually are forgotten unless they’re leading or winning. But Patrick Reynolds raises a very interesting point at All Left Turns: Who would you rather be this Sunday, Clint Bowyer or Jamie McMurray?
Jamie Mac and Mrs. Jamie Mac
Bowyer is in the Chase but winless, the very definition of the mind-numbing consistency that often can land a driver a spot in the postseason. Meanwhile, Jamie Mac missed the Chase but held the checkered flag at the two biggest races of the season, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
It really is a damn good question. If Clint Bowyer finishes fifth in the Chase with no victories, will people remember his season more than McMurray’s? I think not. I subscribe to the short-track school of racing: Fans come to see drivers win races, not finish third every week. Checkers or wreckers, baby.
It’s also interesting from a sponsor perspective. Is General Mills stoked that Clint is in the Big Dance without any Victory Lane photos to show off at headquarters, or would it be happier from the kind of exposure that Jamie Mac landed McDonald’s and Bass Pro Shop for getting splashed all over the worldwide media pond for winning NASCAR’s two mega-races?
I’m not sure. Again, I lean more toward winning. What do you think?
But forget the race Sunday at New Hampshire. Qualifying will be the big story this weekend from Loudon since Coors Light is debuting a trophy queen, the aptly named Miss Coors Light, to pose with the pole winner and interact with fans every week. I’m honestly out of words to describe this brush stroke of genius.
MotoGP heads to Spain this weekend for its maiden event at the Motorland Aragon circuit. Let’s all hope for a safe, clean race there. The series really needs it after the recent tragedies at Indianapolis at Misano.
One of the lingering MotoGP questions hanging over the last four months of 2010 in motorcycle racing is whether Yamaha will release Valentino Rossi early from his contract so he can test with Ducati before New Year’s. Most rumors whisper that the Crossed Tuning Forks will not, as there was some bad blood over Vale’s departure to Ducati.
But it all might be a moot point, anyways. The Doctor is headed to the operating room after this season for surgery on the shoulder that he injured earlier this year in a training crash. That injury has been more bothersome than even the snapped lower leg Rossi suffered in June at Mugello.
Finally, it couldn’t be a racing blog without some sort of political, off-track news, could it? The Australian Grand Prix is reporting huge losses, causing some politicians to question continued state funding for the event.
That fact doesn’t exactly qualify as a shocker. One of the best ways to lose a fortune in the racing world is to stage a Formula One event, as Bernie Ecclestone’s contracts and revenue distribution almost guarantee burgeoning coffers for him and scraps for the tracks.
Still, it should trigger alarm bells that the Australian Grand Prix, one of the most well-attended and popular Grands Prix in the world, is bleeding red ink like an ill-placed Bic in a back pants pocket. But don’t count on any bells being heard in the F1 paddock. The team owners and sport’s bosses are too busy jingling the keys to their new Gulfstream jets to care, especially with oil-rich banana republics featuring tedious Tilkedromes lining up to replace the classic tracks of the world.
Who needs a joyous, traditional event on a great park circuit like Melbourne when you can have jewels of motorsport like Abu Dhabi and Bahrain?
One of the tasks my wife and I assign to our kids is to set the table before dinner. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s important. The same could be said for the final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup last Saturday night — it was anticlimactic as hell, but it set the table for what could be a very interesting Chase.
Denny Hamlin won the race before a hometown crowd, earned his sixth victory of the season and the top seed in the Chase. Some media members and fans played the momentum card and christened Denny as the title favorite heading into the 10-race stretch run. And some rivals already think the trophy engraver should learn how to spell Denny’s name, even though I think that’s a coy ploy to deflect pressure and attention from them.
I’m with Monte: Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team have won four straight Cups, and they’re the favorite to complete the drive for five. Momentum, schmo-mentum. Someone else seemingly has been named as the contender to Jimmie’s throne each of the last three years, and they’ve ended up being pretenders.
And before the Chase starts this Sunday at New Hampshire, expect all sorts of analysis and permutations, dissecting this auto race as if it was the Federal budget proposal. If Hamlin wins the Cup, can he thank his teammate Rowdy Busch for pushing him to new heights this season and in the Chase? Then again, Shrub doesn’t plan on helping Denny much if both have a mathematical chance Nov. 21 in Homestead. Or can a driver without a teammate in the Chase win the whole enchilada, such as the steady Kurt Busch?
Of all the Chase analysis and crystal ball polishing I read over the weekend, I think Mike Mulhern sums it up the best. This Chase could be good, but don’t expect a 12-man battle to the end. It never has happened historically, and Hamlin, Johnson and Kevin Harvick have been too good and too steady all season to let too many other guys play consistently in their world.
There is one famous guy who’s not in the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and after a horrible race Saturday night at Richmond, Junior was left to pick up the pieces of another tattered year. This team’s lack of success — only making the Chase once in three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the most powerful team in NASCAR — is a riddle wrapped in an enigma trapped in a mystery.
NASCAR already expanded the Chase from 10 to 12 drivers in an attempt to ensure megastars like Jeff Gordon and Junior make the postseason. Now there are rumors the Chase field could grow to 15, and Junior is feeling the pressure. He knows an expansion could basically be called “The Junior Rule.” I feel for the dude, as the margin between swimming and treading water is so thin in any form of motorsport. But right now, that cat needs some serious Red Cross swimming lessons or a life jacket.
With all the Chase talk, it’s interesting to see that Formula One — which often is criticized for processional, parade-like racing — has a very tight points battle brewing without a reset of the standings to tighten the field for the “postseason.” Fernando Alonso’s victory Sunday at Monza — in a Ferrari in front of the adoring homeland Tifosi, no less — put the top five drivers in the standings within 24 points of each other with five races left. Leader Mark Webber is just five points ahead of second place Lewis Hamilton.
Sure, the winning pass by Alonso over Jenson Button took place in the pits. But this was still a very good race since both Button and Alonso were at 10/10ths until their pit stops two-thirds of the way through the race. Button’s gap ahead of Alonso never wavered from six- to eight-tenths of a second, and it was captivating. One mistake, one bobble, and either Button was gone or Alonso was ahead.
But it never happened until the quick work of the Prancing Horses in the pits leapfrogged Alonso past Button. Still, it was fantastic, precise, on-the-edge driving between two cars with completely different aero packages. It was damn good motorsports theater, summed up well here by the brilliant Nigel Roebuck.
The race also was refreshing because Hamilton took full blame for an ill-timed attempt to pass Felipe Massa on the first lap. The resulting contact damaged the front right wheel of Hamilton’s McLaren and left him beached in the gravel before the end of Lap 1, his title hopes starting to smolder like touch paper in an ashtray. I can’t imagine the petulant, arrogant Alonso accepting blame for anything.
Speaking of Formula One and miscues, it’s time for six degrees of separation by shining the spotlight on Kimi Raikkonen. Remember him? The vodka-swilling, monosyllabic Finn who won the 2007 World Championship for Ferrari and then bolted for the World Rally Championship last year.
Kimi is still tearing it up on the stages. Well, tearing up some perfectly good Citroens, as seen in this video at WRC.com. Kimi crashed out of the rally Sunday. He seems to be having more fun in the more carefree, laid-back world of rallying, where there are no Ron Dennis sightings to torture him. Still, Kimi isn’t exactly gaining a ton of traction on the stages and was an immense talent in an F1 car when motivated. I’d love to see him back in Formula One, challenging Webber, Alonso, Button, Hamilton and Vettel every race.
MotoGP will be back this Friday at the new Grand Prix of Aragon in Spain after a weekend off. The big wrinkle this event will be a change to the time schedule which sees riders participating in four 45-minute sessions Friday and Saturday — two practices Friday, a practice and qualifying Saturday — instead of the three one-hour sessions.
I like the idea, as fans will get two sessions of MotoGP practice on Friday, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The shorter sessions also will compress more action into a tighter timeframe. That’s never a bad thing.
Loris Capirossi will not race this weekend on his Suzuki, recovering from surgery to rebuild a bone and attach a severed tendon in his finger after a crash with Nicky Hayden at Misano. No replacement rider was named, so Suzuki will field just one factory bike for rookie Alvaro Bautista at Aragon. I doubt there was a big line of riders banging on the factory door wanting to ride the worst factory bike on the grid.
A provisional 2011 MotoGP schedule has leaked, with the event lineup rumored to be confirmed this weekend at Aragon. No major shakeups other than Portugal moving to the spring and the season-opening night race in Qatar moving up a few weeks so the season begins in March. Plus, the only date you really need to memorize now on that schedule is Aug. 26-28 — the dates for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP at IMS!
One key aspect of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule announcement last Friday that may have been overlooked was significant — CEO Randy Bernard’s decision to eliminate Indy Racing League as the sanctioning body name and switch to IndyCar. It’s a VERY smart move, as the acronym IRL still is a symbol of 12 seasons of open-wheel strife in the U.S.
IndyCar is easier to market, easier to remember and creates a great image in everyone’s mind. Smart move.