Monday, February 27, 2017

COMMENTARY: For Daytona 500 Champion Busch, A Resurrection Complete

What a difference two years makes.

Just 24 months ago, Kurt Busch was an unwilling spectator at the 2015 Daytona 500, suspended by NASCAR for the first two races of the season while charges of domestic abuse leveled by former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll were investigated.

Yesterday, Busch stood in Victory Lane at the World Center of Racing, celebrating a win in stock car racing’s greatest event, along with a personal resurrection that seemed all-but-impossible not so long ago.

In 2015, Busch was NASCAR’s resident bad actor, a troubled soul whose repeated clashes with fans, media and even his own teammates often overshadowed his unquestionable talent behind the wheel. Today, the Las Vegas native bears little resemblance to his former self; newly married to a woman he calls “the love of my life” and seemingly content at last with both his job and his life off the race track.

Haas (L) and Gibson played major roles.
There are plenty of people to thank for that transformation.

Team owner Gene Haas scooped Busch off NASCAR’s scrap heap in 2014, after watching the former series champion lift Furniture Row Racing to the ranks of contenders the prior season. Haas hired Busch without consulting partner Tony Stewart, who was convalescing from a badly broken leg suffered in a Sprint Car crash.

“I wanted to go forward with (Busch),” said Haas at the time. “I did this on my own (and) probably overstepped my authority a tick. I realized that Tony might be a little bit upset about it, and he was.”

The move caused a rift within the organization that took some time to heal. But on the race track, it paid almost immediate dividends. After a middling 2014 campaign with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost – 11th in points with a win and six Top-10 finishes in 36 starts – Busch was paired with veteran Tony Gibson for the 2015 campaign.

Gibson’s ready smile and easygoing manner mask a no-nonsense attitude that is exactly what the mercurial Busch needed. “Old Man” laid down the law early in his tenure, putting a stop to the on-track tirades that had poisoned Busch’s previous teams so often in the past. With Gibson’s guidance, Busch turned his biggest liability into a strength, harnessing his competitive fire and focusing it on the race track, rather than his teammates.

"There's a bond we share with Kurt that a lot of drivers don't have with their teams," said Gibson recently. ”He is so involved in the changes that we do. He's in the loop 100%. We don't do anything unless we discuss it with him.

"I applaud him for his dedication. He is involved. He is engaged. And that is what got us where we're at today.”

Van Metre and Busch were married
earlier this year.
The final cog in Busch’s resurrection has been his wife, the former Ashley Van Metre. A professional polo player and model, Van Metre instantly understood and accepted Busch’s demanding lifestyle, providing a degree of grounding and acceptance that he lacked in the past.

“My mood is better when Ashley is at the track,” said Busch in a recent New York Times interview. “My antics over the years are well documented. My age has helped me change, (but) Ashley has committed so much time to me and to our relationship. Her dad has quizzed me on being mature and wise. Those talks have been so beneficial. They even brought me closer to my own father.”
Busch’s mother, Gaye, also gives Van Metre a full measure of credit for her son’s emotional turnaround.
“Kurt’s career is stressful and if he has a bad day, Ashley understands and makes him feel better,” she said. “When he sees her, he gets giddy. He lights up. It makes me so happy… that I cry.”
There were more than a few tears in yesterday’s jubilant Victory Lane. Tears for a man and a race team that have come of age together; finding solid ground, both on and off the race track.

TNS / Stephen M. Dowell

It took 16 years for Kurt Busch to earn the title of Daytona 500 champion. He finished second on three different occasions, chasing Michael Waltrip (2003), Jeff Gordon (2005) and then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman (2008) to the stripe in NASCAR’s most coveted event.
In marked contrast to prior seasons, when minor glitches often triggered volcanic outbursts of negative emotion, Busch remained calm Sunday, despite an early pit road speeding penalty that forced him to restart at the rear of the field, a crash that damaged the nose of his Ford Fusion and a faulty rear-view mirror that dislodged in the race’s final stage.
"My rearview mirror fell off with 30 to go,” said Busch in Victory Lane. ““I thought about how Ashley would have handled that… what she would do. The more I run this race, the more I've learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip. I knew I had to drive defensively. I couldn't even see the cars behind me. I just heard my spotter in my ear.” 
"I told Kurt it was probably the most patient, best race he’s ever run,” said Stewart, a 17-time Daytona 500 competitor who never managed to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy. “He’s very deserving of this win.”
For NASCAR’s former bad boy, now thoroughly soaked with champagne in a raucous Daytona Victory Lane, 2015 may as well have been a thousand years ago.

COMMENTARY: Stage-Based Format Not To Blame For Daytona Carnage

Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500 was a wildly chaotic affair, with eight caution flags and numerous, multi-car pileups that left 35 of the 40 starters with at least some degree of damage at the finish.

In the aftermath of similar carnage in the previous days’ Camping World Truck and XFINITY Series events, many railbirds were tempted to point a premature finger of blame at NASCAR’s new, multi-stage format. A check of the facts, however, points to another culprit; the drivers themselves.

The race started well, with exciting, three-wide racing through the first 250 miles. As the halfway flags flew, however, the “Great American Race” turned into a county fair demolition derby, with five major crashes in a 45-lap span.

 AP/John Chilton

On Lap 105, Kyle Busch’s bid for Victory Lane ended when he blew a tire and slammed the wall in Turns 3-4, sweeping up perennial Daytona favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, rookies Erik Jones and Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler. Busch, Earnhardt and Kenseth were eliminated from competition.

On Lap 128, Jamie McMurray, Trevor Bayne and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson tangled, triggering a massive, 16-car mashup that eliminated Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.

On Lap 137, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, Sadler and Jeffrey Earnhardt drivers crashed on the backstretch, drawing yet another yellow flag and ending Stenhouse’s day.

AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack
On Lap 143, Brad Keselowski, Landon Cassill, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, DJ Kennington, Brendan Gaughan, Daniel Suarez, McMurray, Hamlin, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Ty Dillon were at it again on the backstretch, ending the afternoon for Earnhardt, Keselowski, McMurray, Suarez and Dillon.

And finally, on Lap 151, Gaughan and Joey Gase crashed on the backstretch, with Elliott once again getting a piece of the action.

That’s a whole lot of wrecking in a short period of time. None of it, however, can reasonably be blamed on NASCAR’s new, stage-oriented format.

Sunday’s First Stage ended on Lap 60, 28 laps after the race’s first yellow flag. Stage Two restarted without incident and ran caution-free for another 44 laps.

Stage Two concluded on Lap 120 -- again without incident – with Stage Three beginning cleanly and running seven laps – nearly 20 miles -- before the calamity began.

The final 49 circuits of the event also ran caution-free, despite some spirited, three-wide racing that produced a first-time winner in Kurt Busch, but only after youthful contenders Elliott and Kyle Larson fell out contention after sputtering out of fuel on the final lap.

Did too many cars get wrecked Sunday at Daytona? You bet.

Is NASCAR’s fledgling format to blame? Absolutely not.

“Stage racing hasn’t contributed to any crashes,” said Stenhouse, shortly after being eliminated in the Lap 137 backstretch twister. “We finished every stage under green with no issues, so I would say stage racing was not the issue.”

Harvick said the blame lies under the helmet, saying, “We got some (drivers) up there that didn’t need to be up there, and wound up doing more than their car could do.”

That often happens in restrictor plate racing, regardless of format.

The World Center of Racing has always been unpredictable, and Sunday’s race was hardly the first season opener to be afflicted by an outbreak of Yellow Fever. It has happened for decades, and it will happen again.

Bet on it.

There will be plenty of time in coming weeks to assess NASCAR’s new, stage-based format. The sport’s annual Western Swing – with events at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedways – should provide a calmer, less-volatile yardstick with which to measure.

Monday, February 20, 2017

COMMENTARY: Exploitation Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

The Monster Energy girls made their debut in NASCAR Victory Lane Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, and some folks aren’t exactly happy about it.

Winner Joey Logano had barely finished spraying his celebratory champagne after winning the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona before the internet exploded with reviews – both positive and negative – of the Monster girls’ all-black, form-fitting attire.

“I can't believe the sanctioning body stooped that low,” said one indignant Facebook poster. “This is family friendly? Boobs and leather? I know a lot of people who would not take their families if sights like this become the norm.

NASCAR has (always) had beautiful women,” she continued. “But this is just downright SLUTTY!!!! As slutty as it gets.”

“Are we going for (the) porn star look?” asked another fan. “Leather bustier, Really?”

Daytona's Monster Energy girls
Yesterday’s Monster Energy girl outfits were admittedly more revealing than those of their “Miss Sprint Cup” predecessors, who wore stylized fire suits during Nextel/Sprint’s decade-plus run as NASCAR’s top entitlement sponsor. Monster Energy is a hipper, edgier brand, tailored to appeal to a younger audience. As such, it was expected that their Victory Lane representation might be a bit more… provocative.
The Monster Energy girls wore full-length black leggings Sunday at Daytona, with high-top boots and open-shoulder leather tops. No bare midriffs, no short-shorts, no thong bikinis.

As one Tweeter remarked, “I’ve seen more cleavage at Wal-Mart.”

Sunday’s Victory Lane attire was – in this writer’s personal opinion -- far from “slutty.” In fact, it was less provocative than many of the outfits parading outside my hotel balcony today on The World’s Most Famous Beach. But my opinion doesn’t matter all that much, since what is acceptable to one observer is “slutty” to another.

“The problem is that the ladies worked so hard to be reps for NASCAR and are being relegated to eye candy again,” said one fan via Twitter.

Linda Vaughn set a high bar.
That point of view is valid, but it is also somewhat lacking in historical perspective.

Since the earliest days of the sport, trophy queens have been part of the NASCAR experience. Since being named "Miss Queen of Speed” at Atlanta International Raceway" in 1961, Linda Vaughn has graced Victory Lanes at motorsports events around the globe. Now a youthful 73 years of age, the universally acknowledged “Queen of the Trophy Queens” remains a familiar sight in the NASCAR garage. From the outset, Vaughn was more than just a pretty face. She was (and still is) an intelligent, knowledgeable authority on motorsports who knows more about the machinery being raced than many of the men racing them.

Today’s Monster Energy Girls – like Linda Vaughn before them – are more than just pretty faces. And they do not deserve the “slutty” tag so flippantly bestowed upon them by some observers.

Lady Gaga: demeaning?
I recall no outrage two weeks ago when Lady Gaga showed up for work at halftime of the Super Bowl in an outfit far skimpier than those worn by the Minster Energy girls at Daytona Sunday. No one seemed offended by her choice of apparel, and many jumped to her defense (rightfully) when a small band of internet trolls criticized her for sporting six-pack abs that were not well enough defined for their taste.

Virtually every professional sport has cheerleaders on the sideline, complete with outfits skimpy enough to make the Monster Energy girls look downright overdressed.

Was Lady Gaga being “exploited” at Super Bowl L1? Was the presence of scantily clad cheerleaders demeaning to women and young girls? And if not, how can that possibly be the case for the Monster Energy girls?

There are a million different opinions on this topic; none of them any more (or less) valid than the others.

And that, my friends, is the problem.

From bikini to burka, there are lots of options out there. And with such a wide variance of opinion in terms of what people find acceptable, who gets to decide what is “too much” when it comes to Victory Lane attire?

In the end, Monster Energy does, along with the young ladies who don their chosen attire on Sunday afternoons. And that, unfortunately, leads to a certain degree of indignance among the fan base.

I am the proud father of two adult daughters. And as such, I have always encouraged them to be whatever they wanted to be in life. Doctor, lawyer, teacher, firefighter… or Monster Energy girl. The choice should be theirs, and theirs alone.

If we truly believe in the empowerment of women, we cannot have it any other way.

Make your own decisions, live and let live. It’s what we do in 2017.

Good News And Bad News For Hendrick Motorsports

Elliott (R) and Earnhardt swept the front row
Speedweeks 2017 is off to a flying start for Hendrick Motorsports.

Sophomore sensation Chase Elliott won the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500 for the second consecutive year Sunday, turning a fast lap of 192.308 mph. HMS teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will start second.

"Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports has done a lot of work this off-season," said Elliott, the first driver to claim back-to-back Daytona 500 poles since Kenny Schrader turned the trick in three straight years; 1988-1990. "This team definitely has a knack for these plate tracks… but that stuff doesn't just happen by staying the same. Everyone is always trying to get better and make their cars better and faster; and the engine shop is always finding new things. I'm happy to be a part of it, and hopefully we can run good next Sunday."

Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne time-trailed eighth, with Jimmie Johnson 13th. Those single-car time trial results would seem to bode well for Hendrick’s chances in Sunday’s Great American Race. But for the second time in as many seasons, HMS cars have struggled when drafting

Twelve months after Earnhardt suffered multiple solo spins in Turn Four of the 2.5-mile tri-oval, Johnson lost control twice in Sunday’s 75-lap, non-point Advance Auto Parts Clash. The defending series champion survived the first incident, bouncing off the Ford of Kurt Busch and sending Busch into a spin that ended his day. Johnson’s second crash was more costly to the Lowe’s Chevrolet team, inflicting damage that ended their day with a 16th-place finish in the 17-car field.

But Johnson struggled in traffic. (USA Today photo)
“It’s bizarre, because it drove really good everywhere else,” said Johnson after his second solo crash. “The first time, I had a handling problem when it broke free and I got into the No. 41. Then after that, it was really loose (during) the last long stretch, before I crashed again. 

“I would have to assume that it’s relative to the height of the rear spoiler,” said Johnson, a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion who has uncharacteristically crashed out of six consecutive Clashes in the last six years. “When there is less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it’s real easy to get the pressure off of it.

“Then the back just rotates around.”

Johnson’s struggles were not lost on Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who viewed the procedings from the FS1 television booth while Alex Bowman drove his No. 88 Chevrolet to a third-place finish in the Clash. After spinning three times in virtually the identical spot during Speedweeks 2016, Earnhardt expressed concern with the Hendrick organization’s big-track handling package.

Within minutes after exiting his damaged racer, Johnson was already speculating that Sunday’s bright sunshine may have impacted the performance of his car.

“The sun certainly sits on that (Turn Four) edge of the track a little bit harder than anywhere else,” he said. “We will take some notes and learn from those mistakes and apply that to the 500 car.

“We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer.”

Hendrick’s on-track struggles may force the organization to abandon its recent policy of practicing minimally at Daytona, and drafting virtually not at all. Sources close to the team say both Johnson and Earnhardt will do a good deal of pack racing in this week’s practice sessions, in an attempt to diagnose and cure their continuing issues in the draft. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Petty Unhappy With Earnhardt's Return

"I was a little disappointed..."
NASCAR fans are anxiously awaiting the return of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to on-track competition this week at Daytona International Speedway.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, however, is not one of them.

Petty told FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub last week that he was “a little disappointed” in Earnhardt’s decision to return from a concussion suffered last season; an injury that sidelined him from the second half of the 2016 campaign.

“I was a little disappointed that he did,” said Petty, adding that Earnhardt has “lived half his life, and he don’t need to be messed up going to the next (half).

“I feel like he got through with it two or three times, and he had some pretty big knocks in the head,” said Petty. “I’ve had them, too. I think I still live in one of them, but hitting (my head) was never that bad. He’s got a lot of career, opportunities in front of him. He could make another career, and racing would be a minor thing for him.”

Petty compared Earnhardt -- who was medically cleared to return to competition this season after an exhaustive regimen of rehabilitation and therapy -- to Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards, who cited a desire to maintain good health in his decision to retire earlier this year.

Junior returns at Daytona 
"Look, man, you are still a young man,” said Petty. “You still have your career in front of you. I don’t know if Carl had thought about that same of that kind of stuff.”
To some, Petty’s remarks smacked of “do as I say, not as I do.” After all, the avowed “King of NASCAR” raced with a laundry list of injuries during his Hall Of Fame career, even competing with a broken neck at Talladega Superspeedway in 1980 after a savage crash at Pocono Raceway a week earlier.
“When I broke my neck at Pocono, they took me to the hospital there in Pennsylvania and took x-rays,” recalled Petty in a 2016 interview. “The doctor came in and looked at the x-rays and said, `When did you break your neck before?’
“I didn’t even know I had broken my neck before. I probably broke it some time that I broke something else that hurt worse. They made me a special brace for my neck, and I qualified the car and started the race. I did get out of the car after a while and turned it over to another boy.”
Petty insisted that in his era, drivers were financially incapable of sitting out, unlike today’s stars with their seven-figure incomes.
Petty knows what it's like to race hurt
“No matter how bad you were hurt, your job was to get in that race car and do the best you could,” he said. “You had obligations to yourself, your family and the people that you worked with. You just went and done it.
“If you had a broken leg, you got in the car. If you had broken ribs, you got in the car. If you had a broken neck, you got in the car. If you had a broken shoulder, they taped the dang thing up, put you in the car and you went.”
The 42-year old Earnhardt said he believes he was initially injured in a crash at Michigan International Speedway in June of last season, though no symptoms presented themselves at the time. A second crash in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July prompted him to seek medical attention, and he stepped out of the cockpit under doctors’ orders four weeks later. 
The marked the second time NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver has been forced to the sidelines by a concussion, after missing two Chase races in October of 2012 with similar symptoms.
He told reporters late last month that he is not putting pressure on himself to return quickly to Victory Lane, saying, “I don’t know if I feel like I have something to prove. My fans want me to win… have a great year and win the championship. There is that expectation to compete and do well, but I’ve said 100 times (that) I’ve done more than what I set out to do.

“I’ve accomplished more than what I thought I would accomplish. I look at my trophies and I can’t believe they’re mine. I’m pretty happy with what I did. I’m blown away with how fortunate I’ve been.”

The third-generation driver will sit out next week’s non-point, Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona in favor of youngster Alex Bowman, before returning to competition in the season-opening Daytona 500; a race he won in 2004 and 2014.owman, before returning to competition in the season-opening Daytona 500; a race he won in 2004 and 2014.