The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is a quarter of the way finished. We’ve had nine of the36 races, two multiple winners (neither one named Johnson), a boat-load of leaders and leadchanges…and a lot of unfinished business.

Kyle Busch won at Bristol and Richmond, taking the mantle of short-track star from DennyHamlin. Kevin Harvick won at Auto Club and Martinsville, then promptly fell off the planet interms of contention.

Jimmie Johnson won at Talladega by the slimmest of margins, but hasn’t been the guy he wasthe past five years. Not that it matters just yet, but already folks are looking to say thatFive-Time is looking mighty…peaked.

Jeff Gordon won earlier in the season, then set about finding every spot on every track thatdoesn’t have a soft wall on it. Richmond was a tangle that put him in a bad spot on theinside of the corner.

And it seems like everyone is ticked off at each other. Richmond was a treasure-trove ofone-liners, most of which would be victims of the seven-second delay.

Five-Time was described by the fiery Greg Zipadelli as a “bleeping moron” after punting JoeyLogano into the fence, and Tony Stewart wondered why the best drivers out there were drivinglike “bleep.” Martin Truex Jr. “fired” his pit crew after a stop…seriously. “You’re allfired, every bleeping one of you,” was the gist of what I heard on the scanner.

It came true, actually. At Darlington this weekend, there will be four new tirechangers/carriers on the 56 car.

That’s not even a patch on what Kurt Busch let fly.

Apparently, the cooler of the Busch brothers (and by that I mean generally he is lessvitriolic on the radio overall than his race-winning younger sibling, though the sarcasmmeter is pushed through the roof) had enough of an ill-handling car and just started tomonologue.

It wasn’t Johnny Carson, either.

No aspect of his team’s shortcomings was spared, apparently. I didn’t hear all of it, becausehe wasn’t a factor during much of the race, but what I did hear was best said to a guy ifyou’re standing more than a couple of feet from him.

Parentage, intelligence, personal habits…all were touched on by the elder Busch. Good thingRoger Penske was either in Brazil or back at home, because it takes a bit to make The Captainblush and he’d have been redder than a deficit scorecard in Washington.

The whole Newman-Montoya crash-‘em deal was rather tame on the radio. Newman doesn’t screamon the radio much, and after he wound up against the fence with a torn-up race car, he calmlysaid words to the effect that revenge was a motivating factor.

I don’t speak Spanish (I should learn, really), so I don’t know exactly what Montoya wasthinking, but I do know this: neither one of them is a good choice for bracing right after anincident. Newman’s bigger, but Montoya is pretty solid, and it would be 6-5 and pick ‘em ifthey rumbled.

Newman did start it, and Montoya finished it. As it should be…

Ah, the joys of short-track racing! Richmond is a good place to race; wide and fast andmulti-lane, it gives the boys a chance to stand up and holler. They took that to heart,apparently.

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There but for the grace of God and NASCAR went Martin Truex Jr.

The scariest moment of Martinsville’s otherwise excellent Goody’s Fast Relief 500 Truex Jr. and a hung throttle. It also involved Kasey Kahne in a big way, as the Clam Prince used him as a buffer on his way to the wall. There wasn’t much choice,as a hung throttle means you go where you’re pointed until it either breaks loose or you stop—suddenly.

Boy, did he stop suddenly. The impact shoved the front end of his NAPA Toyota hard to the right…well, what was left of it,anyway. Everything in front of the firewall was jammed solid, and that car is even now being recycled into another racer…orrazor blades, whichever is more cost-efficient.

Truex stated plainly that had it not been for soft walls and the HANS device, he would be in the same situation. The angle ofthe crash and, likely, the cause, was the same as those which claimed Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr.

Martinsville is flatter than a presidential approval poll, and so is New Hampshire. Severe angles to the wall contributed tothe fatal accidents of Petty and Irwin, and it was true in this case as well.

You can make the case that, by hooking Kahne’s left rear quarter, it saved Truex from what could have been a much worse accident than you might anticipate at a track like Martinsville.

Here’s a hearty thank-you to NASCAR for the COT and the HANS…we’d likely see Truex in the crash house for months or worse ifthey hadn’t been in place.

Truex has had, according to reports, problems with the throttle sticking before. He eschewed the ride to the Infield CareCenter at Martinsville in favor of a walk to his pit box, where he had words with crew chief Pat Tryson before heading to see the docs.

Hung throttles were fixed in the aftermath of Petty and Irwin, and we haven’t had much in the way of incidents since then.But as the teams are twisting the innards of today’s engines that much more these days, we’re likely to see some pop up.

Luckily, the COT is made of pretty stern stuff, and so are the soft walls. Even though Truex took a bite out of Turn 3 when he hit it, it was a 25-minute repair job to the wall and then they were back to the beating and banging.

One thing we didn’t see was a whole lot of root-hog during the race. Yeah, they moved people from time to time, but moving isn’t shoving.

You won’t see much of that this weekend at Texas, though. Tapping someone on a crooked part of the track is a big no-no.

Looking forward to the first night race at Texas!

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2011 Martinsville
MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Something nearly happened on Sunday that hadn’thappened since 2008.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Had it not been for aclosing Kevin Harvick, he would have. And that would have been good for NASCAR as awhole, not just the 88 team.

I know that some of you want to hear about anything other than the 88.Understandable, because as a group, y’all are rather parochial when it comes to yourfavorite drivers. But stick with me a minute here, and I’ll tell you why you shouldcare.

First, a healthy Dale Jr., and by that I mean a Dale Jr. that is in contention on aweekly basis, means that more people pay attention to NASCAR. Rising tide lifts allboats, right? More people paying attention to NASCAR means, arguably, that the TVratings will go up and sponsors will take note.

If they take note, they’ll put more cash into the sport, and that means the sportoverall is healthier.

Second, Junior hasn’t won in 97 races, since Michigan back in 2008. That was on fuelmileage, which has been noted more than once by people who do not like Earnhardt forwhatever reason.

Let me break it down for you: fuel mileage is just as much a factor in a NASCAR raceas horsepower or driving talent. If you win a race, you won a race. Period freakin’dot. If Denny Hamlin had better mileage, he would have nailed down the title atHomestead instead of losing it at Phoenix.

That Junior is back in something approaching 2004 form is a compelling story. It’sat least as compelling as Jimmie Johnson winning title after title, attendance woesand bad TV ratings.

I don’t know if it is that people still don’t forgive him for bolting DEI forHendrick or what, but I do know that the young man is doing better than he has in awhile. Is it really preferable for him to wallow in misery for the rest of hiscareer?

It’s not like he wants to run bad. If anything, he presses a little too much. It’sgotta be hard to carry NASCAR’s fortunes around on your back, in addition to thematched set of luggage he’s still toting from 2001 and the inevitable breakup ofDEI. That has a lot to do with his stepmother and some bad feelings, but that’sanother story.

Who among us can say we’d do any better than he has? Yes, he has great equipment.Yes, he has a powerful team behind him. Yes, Rick Hendrick has good people workingfor him. But none of it matters if you can’t communicate, and it’s been a couple ofyears since he was able to communicate like he’s doing now with Steve Letarte.

I’ll go on the record right here and right now and say that Earnhardt Jr. will win arace before Daytona in July.

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Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway are the two short tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. You can throw Richmond and Phoenix in there as well, but both of those act more like big tracks.

Bristol and Martinsville are the places where beating and banging are an art form and the nose of the car is for something besides holding the brake ducts in place.

Bristol, where we raced a couple weeks ago, measures .533 miles around, Martinsville a slightly shorter .526 miles. One (BMS) is high-banked; the other is flatter than a stock market growth chart.

Yet the two have many of the same characteristics.

Both are rhythm tracks, both require a lot of input from the driver and both serve as high-pressure reminders that it’s not all about mashing the gas and driving in deep. When you talk rhythm, Bristol is a thundering rock ballad while Martinsville is more…Michael Buble.

Bristol is easier on brakes than Martinsville and a tad easier on the engine, because the banking serves as a gravity brake, for lack of a better term. At Martinsville, it’s dragstrips and turnarounds, where drivers go as hard as they can on the straights, hard as they dare on the brakes and back to the throttle…500 times.

So what does a race at Bristol do to you? Ask Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch’s crew chief on the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota Camry.

“If you bring a rookie to Bristol, one of the first things he’s going to tell you after a 50-lap run is that he couldn’t even tell you if he was in Turn 3 or Turn 1,” Rogers said. “The track is so symmetrical and so fast and so tight that they literally get lost out there.”

Busch, as he has proven the last five times NASCAR has raced at BMS, doesn’t.

While Bristol is like a blender set on puree, Martinsville is like the old slot-car tracks from back in the day. It’s not challenging as far as layout goes, but it is technical.

Really technical.

It starts with the brakes, runs through the rev limiter and winds up in the hands of bead blowers inside the front wheels.

Hard on the brakes into the corner, float through the center and hammer down off the corner is the mantra; sounds simple, but it’s tougher than nickel steak to do 1,000 times in a row.

If you don’t have brakes at Martinsville, don’t take the car off the trailer. The G-force when the drivers are stepping on the middle pedal is around 3.6; stepping on the gas again is over 2.0, according to one of the leading brake manufacturers.

The brake wear at Martinsville for 500 laps is equivalent to the sort you would see in your passenger car after…80,000 miles.

And you can’t come off the corner any old way at Martinsville. You have to protect the inside line; ergo, it’s one-lane racing for the most part. At Bristol, with its progressive banking, has at least two and sometimes three, depending on the time and place.

That’s where the rhythm comes in. At Bristol, it’s more like launching down the straight, getting off the gas and a slight drag of the brake to set the car, then back to the gas and up off the corner. It’s like Dover in that regard.

Martinsville is more like, “go very fast, stop, turn the car, go very fast again.” That’s tough on engines, because the RPM range is so big. At Bristol, it never gets as low as it does at Martinsville, so the range is smaller.

The heat generated by the brakes makes the bead blowers very important. As long as the bead of the tire (the part that tucks into the edge of the rim) stays cool, the tires act like tires and not balloons at the county fair. If they can’t keep up, the front tires tend to blow out and that is never good, even at a short track.

With Martinsville on the horizon, there’s plenty of attention being paid to the differences between Bristol and Martinsville.

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After most of a season off recuperating from blood clots that threatened his career, Brian Vickers was eager to get back in the saddle at Daytona last month.

Getting back in his No. 83 Red Bull Toyota Camry—complete with a new paint scheme—was all he’d been thinking about once the 2010 season ended. Well, that and all that he’d been through, including heart surgery, enforced layoffs and a massive change in perspective.

“Going through this is definitely going to change my perspective,” he said. “I think what I went through changed me more personally. It changed who I am and I grew a lot as a person. I still have a lot of growing to do and I am sure there are plenty of people that would point that out. I definitely took a big step up the ladder through this experience.

“I have no doubt that going through this experience and how its changed me personally is going to show up on the race track. My opinion is that it’s going to show up in a better way. I think it’s going to be a benefit to how we perform on and off the race track. There may be times when it’s not, but I believe that the perspective and the growth that I’ve had personally is going to be a positive out there on the race track.”

That said, he was looking forward to making noise in NASCAR’s biggest race.

He did, but it wasn’t the kind of noise he was after.

The 17-car pileup in the early going claimed Vickers, crash damage rearranging the right side of his Camry and ending his hopes of a Lazarus-like comeback at Daytona.

“It was a very special moment for me,” BV said after the race was over. “To not finish with a car in one piece, not so much…I want to be mad. I want to be angry. I want to be disappointed. But I have to honest with you, I’m having a hard time being that.

“It sucked being in a crash, but it felt fantastic getting back in a race car. It felt so good. I can’t tell you how happy I was to be back.”

It didn’t get any better at Phoenix, as an early contretemps with Matt Kenseth relegated him to 30th place at the end.

As such, Vickers was a little more fiery than normal while watching his Camry get pounded back into shape for the second week in a row.

“The 17 (Matt Kenseth) ran us into the wall, door-slammed us into the corner coming out of turn two, just 67 laps into a very, very long race,” Vickers said. “I felt like it was unnecessary and I’m sure it will come back to him.”

With that veiled threat hanging in the air, Vickers packed up and went to Vegas, where he finally got rid of the comeback blues.

Las Vegas was the start of something better. In logging his first top-10 since Darlington last May, Vickers could see the light at the end of a tunnel, and he was reasonably sure there wasn’t a train behind it.

“Today was finally the good start to our season we have needed,” he said. “We have to keep it up and chip away at the points inch by inch each week. We made the most of everything today and got every drop we could out of the car -- the guys did a great job in the pits and with adjustments.

“Everyone gave 100 percent and that’s all you can ask for.”

With a week off between Vegas and this week’s race at Bristol, Vickers hopped a jet with friends and went out of the country. Off-weekends are rare in NASCAR’s top division, and one takes what one can get.

But it still leaves him with hope for Bristol, the coming race at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville, where he has run very well in the past.

Vickers has a new teammate in Kasey Kahne, and the two are getting along well. An example of that came at Phoenix, where Vickers and crew chief Ryan Pemberton adopted Kahne’s Kenny Francis-prepped setup for qualifying and the race.

“We’ve always got along good,” Kahne said of Vickers. “We’ve never really done a whole lot together as far as racing, but we’ve got along good. Brian’s a really good driver, so I feel like we can work together well. I think we can learn a lot from each other and work together as teammates to help each other and to help our company.”

For his part, Vickers welcomes Kahne as a teammate, if only for a season.

“We got along as opponents so I can’t imagine we’re not going to get along as teammates,” Vickers said. “His experience level is going to bring a lot to the table. That’s something Red Bull hasn’t had. I’m not going to get into whether or not he’s a better, more successful, less successful driver -- that really doesn’t matter.

“The point is that Scott (Speed) brought his own talents, but he didn’t have experience. You can’t just make that, you can’t just create that. It just takes time and that’s something Kasey does have. Kasey has experience and depth in the sport. I can lean on him, he can lean on me. When he starts talking about something he’s tried at a particular track or a car setup or something that’s bothering him in the car -- he has the experience to back it up.”

Since that dreadfully character-building season of 2007, Team Red Bull has come a long way, Vickers said.

“When I was hired at Red Bull as the first driver, gosh, I was like maybe the fifth or sixth employee,” Vickers said. “Literally I walked in the shop and it was just me and a handful of other guys. It’s incredible to watch the team go through everything it’s gone through and grow as much as it has.

“Where we’re at right now, I really believe is as good as we’ve ever been as an organization. From a direction, a culture, a structure, a passion, a drive -- I think the enthusiasm within the team on both cars within the race shop in the highest it’s ever been. Having two experienced guys that can lean on each other is the best it’s ever been. Honestly, I’m really excited about 2011 and the growth I’ve seen through the years.”

When it gets right down to it, though, Vickers is still the same guy he was before all this happened.

“When Sunday rolls around I still want to win,” he said.

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You can look at the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas through different prisms, of course. What you see depends largely on what you like.

If you like racing against the fuel gauge and fuel window, with an eye on tire wear, then the Kobalt 400 was a pretty good race. If you like hard racing, side-by-side, charging and battling and so on, then the Kobalt Tools 400 was Chinese water torture, only not as fun.

The new nose on the Sprint Cup cars was supposed to be a better bullet, making the cars look less like Transformers and more like…I don’t know, race cars? Aesthetically, that was accomplished. They look like racers. It’s too bad they didn’t act like them.

The nose still makes the cars plow the air. When I say plow, I’m talking hitch-up-the-mule, we’ve-got-40-acres-before-lunch plowing. Or better yet, snow plows in Minnesota.

That’s a problem. A big one. A major deal. It means that once again, clean air is more of a factor in who wins the race than horsepower or driving skill. God forbid somebody’s computer crashes…we’d never know what to do.

Consider runner-up Tony Stewart’s strategy. The fastest car all day long, he pitted early and put on two tires to gain track position, thus meaning he would be in position to put four tires on for the run to the checkered. It nearly worked, but Carl Edwards and Juan Montoya did the opposite and got ahead of him for the final run.

Stewart was able to run Montoya down for second, but dirty air prevented him from getting to Cousin Carl’s back bumper before the checkered.

Kyle Busch had a fast car before it blew up (“I’ve got flames in my face, dude!” he said when it happened) and he was wicked-fast when he was by himself in clean air. In traffic? Not so much.

Aero-push is a problem that NASCAR has been fighting for the past 15 years or so, and myriad changes to the body, aero rules, valances, spoilers/wings, etc. have taken it full-circle. The race strategy now is equal parts pit strategy and track position, which is OK, but for one thing: they’re having to rely on problems for other drivers or bad pit calls to get to the front.

I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but that isn’t NASCAR. That’s Formula One. That’s the old CART. I can do that same kind of thing on my video game console at home. It’s not fun there, either.

Of course, it is the first race with the new combo on a 1.5-mile track, so NASCAR will evaluate, I’m sure. Just like at Daytona, they’ll tinker and get it better.

The schedule played a part in this, too. The first race at Daytona was a crapshoot, because construction bricks can draft there. Phoenix? Not so much of a problem and they raced competitively there, three-wide and rolling.

Vegas, on the other hand, is a different animal. That type of track is the most common on the circuit, and by exhibiting the aero sensitivity they did, it means a lot of follow the leader racing is in the offing.

That’s a bad thing for NASCAR, FOX, the fans…the list goes on.

Goodyear’s tires were steady for the most part, but the three tires they had that went down all resulted in wall-bangers. Jeff Gordon and David Gilliland took the short right turn in the middle of the corner, and that’s seriously bad news.

After three races, we’ve seen the good and the bad, and Vegas was, sorry to say, the ugly. NASCAR will have to put its thinking cap on to cure the aero problems that showed up at Vegas.

Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile bowl in the mold of Michigan without the snow, is next. Aero-tight is something you’re going to hear a lot from SoCal.

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Vent Tube

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A new season dawned in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing last Sunday, and it was new in more ways than one.

Changes over the winter included a new nose for all four makes that compete in the series, new pavement was laid down at Daytona and a new style of racing, featuring two-car drafts, made its debut at Speedweeks.

The pit crews also did pit stops without a catch-can man, for the first time in many years.

One less crewman over the walls means that the six who do still go over have more stuff to do, and in a 14-second time span. The catch-can man did several things: held the gas can for the fueler on a two-can stop, made chassis adjustments and helped signal the driver and crew chief as to how much fuel got in the car.

“It’s a lot harder for me, especially when it’s a two-can stop,” said Scott Wood, gas man for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota. “Instead of the catch-can man holding the can while I switch, I have to hustle and get the other can before the stop is over.”

Wood is a former jack man turned fueler, and that’s not the only thing he had to adapt to with the change. The fueling rig itself changed.

“It’s a bigger probe on the end, and you still have to hit the four-inch hole on a moving target when you’re fueling,” Wood said. “The old probe, when you hit the opening, would go in three or four inches. This one, it only goes in about three-quarters of an inch, and if it’s not exactly right and hooked up, you don’t get any fuel in the car.”

The added equipment for the rig is also heavier, Wood said.

“With the new probe and its apparatus for venting back into the system, the can went from about 88 pounds to about 94 pounds,” he said. “That’s not a big difference on one stop, but when you make eight or so a race, it adds up.”

Now, fuel men are anything but petite. They are usually tall and broad and train to handle the weight of the can and the gas, which weighs around eight pounds per gallon. Having to slue that can and its bulkier probe around through three dimensions is not easy.

As for adjustments, which the catch-can man used to handle, in most cases the rear tire carriers have been given that responsibility, Wood said.

“I can make adjustments, if it’s a stop where we don’t have a lot of fuel, but in general the rear catchers do it now,” he said. “We have trained it up to where it works pretty well.”

The fact that the announcement was made late last season gave the pit crew coaches enough time to plan out the duties among the six crewmen who are left over the wall, Wood said.

“We did a lot of practice and tuning on the process, early enough so that we were ready for it when it got here,” Wood said.

One problem that made itself known at Daytona was the propensity for the dry-break system to come unstuck while the car was jacked up on the right side.

For such a system to work, the seal has to be constant; otherwise, it shuts off to prevent air from getting in the fuel tank and fuel from sloshing out onto the ground. Air, like liquid, has mass, and if there’s air in the tank, that means less go-go juice for the engine.

While the car is jacked up on the right side, it changes the angle of the probe. With the decreased amount of penetration by the probe, it means the fueler still has to keep the seal tight. And it’s not like the car is motionless while all this is going on; the tire changers tug on the wheels to get them off, and the carriers slam the new wheels on.

All of that rocks the boat, so to speak. If the seal breaks, the fueler has to reconnect, and that takes time.

“It’s a new ball game,” said Wood with a rueful smile.

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Kyle Busch is a changed man.

Recently married to the former Sam Sarcinella, the 25-year-old Busch has a new outlook on what he does for a living…which is drive race cars for Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR’s top three series.

Another thing he does, though not for a living, is elicit strong feelings in NASCAR fans. If you’ve ever been to Driver Intros at a NASCAR race, you’ll know why. But on this day, he was talking about the top goal on his mind: ending Jimmie Johnson’s run of five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles.

Knocking Jimmie Johnson off the champion’s pedestal is job one for anyone not named Jimmie Johnson, and Busch is of the opinion that this is the year it happens.

“We all thought it was last year [that Johnson’s streak would end],” Busch quipped. “You don’t know how long the streak can go. Sometime it’s got to come to an end. Of course, we all here at Joe Gibbs Racing hope to put an end to that and bring the title back to Joe Gibbs Racing where it was before Jimmie (Johnson) went on his streak with Tony Stewart being the last champion before Jimmie so we feel pretty good about that.”

In the 20th anniversary season for JGR, that would be quite the coup. To do so would also bring home Toyota’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, and that would be the icing on the cake.

Busch and his teammates want that, both for Toyota and JGR.

“Denny [Hamlin] was awfully close last year, but to bring home a Sprint Cup Series championship for Toyota and for Joe Gibbs Racing in our 20th season would be awfully cool. We look forward to the opportunity at chasing it.”

Nobody questions Busch’s ability to win races. He’s proven that time and time again. To win a title, though, in the Sprint Cup Series, is a horse of a different color. Can Busch win a title?

“I would certainly like to hope so,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot of ways that people try to razz you or try to get into you, but you have to forget about that stuff and know what’s important. What’s important first and foremost of course is right here, which is family with what’s at home and then of course you look at your career and your business and what happens here at Joe Gibbs Racing -- making the most of the effort for Toyota and Interstate Batteries and M&M’s.”

As for the 2011 season, Busch is optimistic. That’s a change, at least on the surface.

Kyle Busch

“I feel pretty good about it,” Busch admitted. “I’m pretty confident with the guys and with the team and with the cars and everything. Toyota has come a long ways and hopefully we can make up some more ground this year at being able to compete for the championship.

“With Denny (Hamlin) running the way he did last year was really great for Joe Gibbs Racing, and being able to be in contention until the last race there. Overall, we’re all pumped up and ready to go. You sit around all winter long and you think about when the season’s going to start and it turns around and it’s here already. You’re like, ‘I’m not ready.’”

He’s ready. Crew chief Dave Rogers is ready as well. They have a year of working together under their belts, and whatever ground they need to make up has already been analyzed.

“I think that anywhere that you don’t capitalize on and any races you don’t win, any championship you don’t win -- there’s obviously ground to be made up,” Busch said. “There’s ground to be made up somewhere. With us, we just need to put the total package together and be able to go out there to achieve our potential and to reach our potential and be able to win.”

Rogers, who plays the mild-mannered foil to the sometimes boisterous Busch, pinpointed the area they need to improve.

“It’s consistency,” he said. “When we have a fifth-place car, we need to make sure we finish fifth with it. When we have a 10th-place car, we need to be 10th. If we can do that…well, it will certainly help us a bunch.”

From Busch’s perspective, it’s more about prevention than anything else.

“I think we need to be better at preventing some things, whether it’s car problems or myself losing my temper or maybe just working with Dave a little better and having more consistent times that we are able to spend together.

“Communication and being able to talk goes a long way in this sport now. It seems like it’s more than ever, it used to just be laid on the crew chief, ‘Bring me a good car and I’ll win the race.’ Now you have to work on making a good car. The competition is so close.”

Both Busch and Rogers think that the offseason was a good one for talking through and learning more about each other.

“We both did learn an awful lot about last year and we’ve both talked a lot this winter,” Busch said. “We spent some time together and we’ve had some good talks and some good opportunities to think about what we want to do and kind of develop our plan and our strategy for moving forward into this year. We’ve gone over most of that and hopefully we can put it all into effect here at the beginning of the year and get our momentum rolling and stay strong all throughout the year.”

Will it make a difference this year? Will Busch be the man to reclaim NASCAR’s top prize for Joe Gibbs Racing? We’re just going to have to wait and see how it plays out.

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The Devil is in the Details

Stock car racing, NASCAR-style, is more like NFL football than it is open-wheel racing. Fenders mean there’s a little bit of “wiggle” room when you’re three-wide and faster than the other two, and the chrome horn is not a trophy, but an attitude.

At Daytona, however, it’s a little different. NASCAR teams are dialing up the engineering in an effort to make their “stock” cars lighter, more slippery and, at the end of the day, faster than anyone else’s. That’s because restrictor plates are in use, and that robs horsepower and speed.

Where to start?

How about the body? The bodies on the Chevys, Dodges, Fords and Toyotas used in NASCAR competition are all pretty standard, but as is often said, the devil is in the details. NASCAR allows a certain amount of arranging when the body is hung on the chassis, but not enough to make a huge difference.

The devil-detail connection happens when you start to add color to the primer.

Whether it’s a wrapped car—full-body decals—or a painted one, the idea is to make it slice through the air. There are many ways to do that, starting with the finish.

Depending on which team is doing the prep, the processes are specific. Some teams paint the car one color, add the decals and put on a clear-coat finish to get the edges of the decals out of the air.

You might think that is wretched excess, but it isn’t. Studies have been done on this very thing, in the wind tunnel, and you’re talking fractions of grams of drag. The teams will take as much drag out of the equation as possible, and some even hand-paint the decals onto the car to get it done.

Another way to do that is, after the decals are applied and the clear-coat sets, taking a wet sander to the finish to scrape every last blemish and bubble out of the body. Back to the wind tunnel for a final swipe with the Lionel train-smoke wand, and they’re off to Daytona.

Some teams even apply a slippery substance (Teflon®-based) to the suspension pieces and the undersides of the cars to make them go through the air a little cleaner, though not much air gets through the new nose and under the car these days.

Air won’t turn a corner, but it will follow a curve, and the smoother the curve, the faster the air flows over it. That’s downforce, not drag, and it is sought out like the map to the City of Gold.

Remember, we’re talking miniscule amounts of drag here, and teams will change normal hex bolts to smooth-topped buttons to reduce it. And that’s UNDER the car, too. While five bolts so changed might not make a difference, 45 or 50 will, and teams have the numbers to back it up.

Anything that can possibly add drag is pored over and reduced, if possible. Fender braces, body brackets, NACA-duct openings…you name it, it goes under the microscope and through the wind tunnel. Fender openings get special attention too, tucked as tight around the wheels as possible to reduce the possibility of air getting underneath and into the body work.

Inside the car, innocuous things like wiring harnesses, shifter boots and the like are optimized to be air-tight or slippery, depending on where they are. The air flow to the driver is arranged so that whatever drag it produces is minimized (NACA ducts are the funny-shaped inserts in the windows, and they blow air on the driver, the oil cooler, dry sump and transmission housings.

Even the brakes are gone over with a fine-toothed comb. At Daytona, the teams use the smallest pads and calipers they can and still stop the car on pit road, and the brake fans are located out of the slipstream as much as possible. If you’re using the brakes at Daytona, you’re either avoiding a wreck or dragging to stay in the draft and not start The Big One on your own hook.

This year, with the new pavement at Daytona, the tire temps should not be high enough to melt the bead of the tire, but you can never be sure, so bead blowers will likely still be in use, according to one Toyota crew member.

Everything that can be lightened, smoothed or otherwise polished is, all in the search for one less ounce of drag and one more ounce of downforce.

Well, the camp chairs and coolers have gone back into the garage, the RV to the dealer to be serviced and winterized. The flags have gone back in the bags, and all the stuff that was used to enjoy the NASCAR season has been replaced with the trappings of the holiday season.

It’s the toughest time of year for NASCAR fans.

Of course, there’s next week’s tire test at Daytona and next month’s open test on the new pavement at the World Center of Speed to look forward to, but for now, we’re all caught up with the mature gentleman who races a bright-red sleigh powered by an “R8 (Reindeer, Eight)” and makes millions of pit stops during his annual “race.”

The drivers have disappeared, mostly to places far warmer than Charlotte. Once the awards banquet in Las Vegas winds down, they scatter. This is the only time of the year they can do that, other than the periodic off-week, so they take their wives or girlfriends to the beach for some well-deserved time out of the spotlight.

The crew guys? Not so much, but they get some time off and a schedule that’s a little less hectic for a few weeks.

“It doesn’t really stop,” said Ira Jo Hussey, who changes front tires for the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota driven by Joey Logano. “We are supposed to work out and do cardio twice a week for the month of December, versus four or five times a week during the season.

“It’s just kind of maintaining what you’ve gained and worked on over the year. You maintain your strength and flexibility, and then hit it really hard in January.”

This is in addition to cranking out the stuff they’re responsible for in the shop. NASCAR teams never sleep. Daytona is, at last count, just over two months away, and there are new aero pieces, new technologies, a new fuel system and many, many other things to get ready for the two-week stint at the World Center of Speed.

If you’re a NASCAR Nationwide Series crewman or crew chief, you don’t HAVE a break. The new car is the only car, starting at Daytona, and there’s a lot of work to do on getting enough of the new pieces into inventory before the season starts.

NASCAR fans have to do their jobs all year long, and the schedule doesn’t enter into it. If you’re a CPA, you’re gearing up for tax season. Farmers mend equipment and make ready for planting. Journalists…sit around and wait for the beginning of the new season and catch tidbits of info wherever they can.

So that’s what I’ll be doing over the “break.” How about y’all? Any holiday traditions out there that you want to share? I’ll go first.

Every year, on Christmas Eve morning, my family and I get up and out to breakfast. This started in 1971 and has been observed every year since. It’s important, so we dare not break it, even when Christmas Eve is a work day and we have to do so at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.

Let us know, on Facebook (NASCAR RacePoints) or Twitter (@NASCAR_Rewards)…after all, ‘tis the season to share glad tidings!

Fan Experience

For Rita and Cris Dougherty, the trip to the season-ending Ford Championship Weekend was more than an escape to Miami from the soon-to-be-chilly Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

It was a chance to do NASCAR up right.

Thanks to NASCAR RacePoints, the Doughertys were able to do things that regular NASCAR fans couldn’t during the season’s final weekend, such as take a ride in the Ford Mustang Pace Car around the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“That was a blast,” said Rita, who redeemed her RacePoints for one of the packages offered. “It’s amazing to see what it’s like on the track from the inside of the car. It’s scary to think that they’re doing this with 42 other cars around them, inches away.”

Her husband, Cris, was even more enthusiastic.

“That was awesome,” he gushed. “I have always been a racing fan, and I’ve done some driving back home (in Maryland), but never NASCAR. It was fun.”

While the pace car didn’t hit the 170-mile-per-hour-plus that the NASCAR cars get to, it was fast enough. “We were going 85, 90 mph,” Cris said. “In a street car, it seems faster.”

Big NASCAR fans, the Doughertys live in Dover’s back yard but have attended several races in other places, like Charlotte, for instance (home of the Bank of America 500, by the way!).

One of the places they would love to go is Talladega, and they might just do that in 2011.

Of course, if Cris realizes his dream of working in the sport, visits to new tracks could be a regular occurrence! An electrician by trade, he wants to get inside the sport in a big way.

The three days of Ford Championship Week were a big draw for the couple, and they spent every possible moment at the track during the final weekend of the season.

“We got here early and we’ll leave late,” Rita said. “There’s so much to do, so why not do it all?”

That’s as good an explanation of what it means to be a redeemer of one of NASCAR RacePoints’ packages as there is.

John Curry

Take one look at John Curry and you see a NASCAR fan.

He’s a car guy, a racing purist and, as it happens, a frequent redeemer of NASCAR RacePoints packages around the country.

Curry, who is the parts and service manager for the huge Byers Auto complex in Columbus, Ohio, is a student of the game, and as he and his father-in-law, Jack Evans, took in the season-ending Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, that came out in conversation.

“I’ve always been a racing guy, a car guy,” he said. “In my job, my life is cars and parts and racing.”

Curry is a veteran of NASCAR racing as well as other forms, and he collects RacePoints simply by using his Bank of America card to fulfill his passion for the sport.

“I use it for everything,” he quipped. “When I saw that The NASCAR Foundation Ford Championship Weekend package was available, I just had to book it. I got in early and got it.”

It’s a funny story, actually, about how his father-in-law came to be his guest for the weekend in sunny South Florida.

“My wife is a big NASCAR fan, too, and when I told her I requested the package and that I had gotten it, she was pretty excited,” Curry said with a smile. “But he wanted to go too, and she ended up giving it to him.”

Jack was a bit chagrined as Curry explained this, but wasn’t about to apologize. “She was nice enough to let me come,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun down here.”

The weather was beautiful, the racing solid and the opportunity to wander the garage with the All-Access Passes available in the package thrilled both men.

“It is so neat to just walk around and see all the things that they do in the garage,” Jack said, sipping a Coke in the HMS Medical Center. “It’s hard to imagine how they get all that done in the time they have.”

In talking with Curry and Evans, it was easy to see that fans like them are what the NASCAR RacePoints program is built to do: give passionate fans the opportunity to live the scene and do the things that all NASCAR fans want to be able to do.

Their experience at the track was made possible through NRP’s partnership with The NASCAR Foundation. The Foundation provided all of the race weekend perks for Curry and Evans, and the RacePoints they used to redeem for the package were donated as cash to The NASCAR Foundation.

Curry, given the fact that he’s a real race fan and fond of at-track activities, would’ve redeemed the package regardless of its source, no doubt, but he felt good about his RacePoints supporting a charitable organization. “I was so happy knowing that while I was having a blast at Homestead, I was also doing a good thing for kids and the community, through the Foundation,” he said.

“I love this program,” Curry said. “I’ve got a lot of points, and I’ll redeem them when I get enough. It’s a lot of fun to do things like this…”

Evans agreed, though he admitted that the next time the point totals reached redemption levels, he would probably be out of the mix. “I don’t think she’s going to let me go the next time,” he said with a grin. “I don’t blame her.”

John Curry

Are you a Tweeter? @NASCAR_Rewards is the Twitter account, and look for uson Facebook at NASCAR RacePoints!

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kasey Kahne met the media for the first time as a Team Red Bull driver on Friday morning, and said that he was eager to begin work on his future.

Richard Petty Motorsports was doing the same thing, but its future seems to be a bit more immediate…and a lot more bleak.

According to, RPM consultant Dale Inman said the team was informed last week that financial problems were on the horizon given the contentious sale of co-owner George Gillett’s Liverpool soccer organization. The sale was finalized for far less money than was originally projected. The team was already behind in its payments to Roush Fenway Racing and Roush Yates Engines, and the sudden pinch was the trigger.

Upon the announcement of Kahne’s release, which according to Kahne was a mutual decision, speculation started that Roush Fenway was repossessing cars that RPM had ready for Martinsville and Talladega, and that there would be no more forthcoming.

Inman put the kibosh on that speculation.

"We're going to run in the race Sunday and we're working real hard to finish out the year with everything we've got going," Inman told ESPN. "There's a lot of good people working on it. Everybody seems to be cooperating because it's affecting a lot of people on a lot of sides.

"We'll keep our fingers crossed and hope everything works out good."

The cars and engines for Talladega are in the shop and being prepared, Inman said, but stopped short of stating that RPM would finish the season in its present state.

"I'd be scared to speculate on that," he told ESPN. "There's some gray areas we've got to clear up by some high-ranking people, but they all seem to be cooperating. We'll see what happens."

Inman said no decision has been made on who will drive the No. 9 after Martinsville, where Aric Almirola will be in the car. Marcos Ambrose is signed to take over the No. 9 car for 2011, but will not leave JTG Daugherty Racing before the end of the season.

Bobby Labonte is signed to take over Ambrose’s ride.

As for Kahne, he was in the car Friday morning for Red Bull, practicing for this weekend’s TUMS 500.

“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s a big change for me. I’ve really been doing the same thing for six and a half years, and to make a change like this—new people, new cars, manufacturer, sponsor—everything is different. I’m looking forward to it.”

Splitting with RPM was not about money, Kahne said. “I’m paid up to date from RPM Motorsports. They’ve met their commitments there and that’s been really good that they have. I thank them for that.

“It was a mutual release, and for me, I think it’s a good thing for both sides. They’re happy about it and we are happy about it.”

Kenny Francis, his crew chief at RPM, will move to Red Bull at the end of the season. Until then, he will work with Jimmy Elledge in the No. 83 Toyota.

Are you a Tweeter? @NASCAR_Rewards is the Twitter account, and look for us on Facebook at NASCAR RacePoints!

Richard Childress is an even-keeled sort of guy. He plays by the rules and when his teams win, they do so within the rules of the game.

NASCAR, which penalized RCR and Clint Bowyer 150 points each and made Shane Wilson go away for six races, apparently didn’t see it that way after Bowyer won at New Hampshire, and that’s at the root of RC’s comments Wednesday.

"First of all, I'd like to apologize to our sponsors, our fans and everyone at RCR for the situation that has resulted from this ruling,” a statement released yesterday from RCR opened. “RCR has a long-standing reputation of integrity on and off the race track. We pride ourselves on working within the rules established by the sanctioning body. NASCAR informed us after the Richmond race that we were very close to their maximum tolerances. They also told us they were going to take our New Hampshire car to the NASCAR Technical Center after that race. It doesn't make any sense at all that we would send a car to New Hampshire that wasn't within NASCAR's tolerances.

“I am confident we fixed the area of concern and the New Hampshire car left the race shop well within the tolerances required by NASCAR. We feel certain that the cause of the car being out of tolerance by sixty thousandths of an inch, less than 1/16th of an inch, happened as a result of the wrecker hitting the rear bumper when it pushed the car into winner's circle. The rear bumper was also hit on the cool-down lap by other drivers congratulating Clint on his victory. That's the only logical way that the left-rear of the car was found to be high at the tech center.

“We will appeal NASCAR's ruling and take it all the way to the NASCAR commissioner for a final ruling, if need be.”

Here’s where it gets tricky. NASCAR’s Commissioner, Charles D. Strang, has the reputation of a hangin’ judge among NASCAR competitors. In other words, “we’ll give them a nice, fair trial, all sorts of due process, and follow it up with a nice, legal hanging.”

That’s by design. The Commissioner was put in place as a safety valve to allow competitors to seek redress of penalties levied by the sanctioning body. Of course, that doesn’t mean NASCAR has to use it for such. All penalties are reviewed by the Commission and a ruling is handed down by the Commissioner. Nice, neat and proper, it serves as a court of last resort for NASCAR teams.

Usually, the verdict comes back the same as the penalty handed down. There have been amendments to the penalties, but in a case where the numbers back up NASCAR, there likely won’t be.

In the meantime, Bowyer went from the penthouse to the outhouse in terms of the Chase, falling from second to 12th in points with the 150-point hammer. Instead of trailing Denny Hamlin by 35, he’s now 185 back.

He also keeps Wilson and his car chief for another week, until Hang…I mean, Strang, gets the boys together and decides which rope to use.

He’s good at Dover, too, so there’s a scenario by which he could win there and then, if the penalty is reduced, be in a great position to knock off Hamlin and any others who might gain ground.

Technology is a pain as well as a godsend, isn’t it? In the old days, tolerances were not so close, measurement not nearly as sophisticated. Of course, the rules were a bit more open to interpretation, too. Somewhere, Smokey Yunick is doing a double-somersault in the pike position at being called on a 60-thousandths violation.

It will be interesting to note where this winds up. My guess? It will remain as it is now…from the penthouse to the outhouse.

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Clint Boyer

Clint Bowyer got to hoist Larry the Lobster (all 45 pounds of him) in Victory Lane on Sunday at New Hampshire.

That’s sort of apropos, because the 12 Chasers are going to be clawing themselves silly to win the Cup, the big money and the adoration of millions.

OK, the Cup and the money!

The first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is in the books, and what do we know?

Well, for starters, we know that playoff seeding doesn’t mean a hill of beans. We know that taking chances is going to be a theme for this Chase, and we know that the next nine races are going to be just like this one.

Why do I say that? When you’re tagging fenders among Chase drivers two laps into the race, you know the ratchet has been turned down tight. These boys could’ve cracked walnuts on the steering wheel, their knuckles were so tight.

Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson spun, Tony Stewart ran out of gas from the lead coming down for the white…it got chippy two laps in when Hamlin and Johnson got into each other while running three-wide.

New Hampshire isn’t a place you see much three-wide racing, and yet there they were, stacked from Loudon to Nashua and going hell-bent for leather within a few laps of the initial green.

Conventional wisdom tells you that being in the top five is attainable only if you’re in the top five or seven with 150 laps to go, and some of the Chase drivers were trying to dig out of a pretty big hole after qualifying.

Brad Keselowski was in the mix as usual, nerfing Matt Kenseth into the fence in the only real detrimental action for the Chasers, crash-wise. It was a matter of him being on the inside and washing up the non-existent banking at NHMS, which is two degrees at the bottom of the track and a whopping seven degrees at the top. If you’re racing around the seven-degree banks, you’re either coming off a trip to the wall or on your way to it.

Chasers were scattered over the top 25 positions at the end, with Johnson the last one, a lap down in 25th. Stewart had the lead with two to go, but ran out of gas coming to the white flag, allowing Bowyer to score the victory.

Stewart limped around and finished 24th, coasting across the line. That’s what I meant about taking chances. He was gambling that there would be at least one caution over the final 55 laps, but there wasn’t one and he tried to stretch his fuel over 90 laps or so.

“Couldn't believe it,” Bowyer said in amazement after the race. “I could not believe it. And then I thought I was going to run out. As soon as you see him [Stewart] run out, you're wondering when it's your turn then. It happened in the burnout, thank God.”

Stewart was remarkably composed after it was over.

“I’m not happy, that’s for sure, but we went down swinging,” he said. “It’s hard to lose one that way, but at the same time, it was fun racing Clint like that. He did a good job of saving fuel and I didn’t do a good job. It’s a tough way to start the Chase.”

Stewart said he would have “settled for second. If you know exactly how much gas you have, it would be different, but you never know. It’s part of the sport, always has been. It’s what makes it exciting when you never know until the last lap what’s going to happen.”

Then he gave the quote of the weekend, in terms of what’s going to happen next.

“There is so much that can happen in nine races. I promise you this: This Old Spice/Office Depot Chevy team is not going to give up. We’ll do the best we can and give it our best shot.”

Johnson had a horrific day, for him, spinning twice and then having to come in with a loose wheel late in the race. That got him a lap down. Behind Bowyer and Hamlin came Kevin Harvick in fifth and Jeff Gordon sixth. Kyle Busch was ninth, Carl Edwards 11th, Kurt Busch 13th, Jeff Burton 15th and Greg Biffle 17th.

Kenseth was 23rd after getting sent to the fence by Keselowski and tearing up the left side of the Crown Royal Ford.

Dover is coming up next, and besides Talladega, that’s the biggest crapshoot in the Chase. The place is quick, stuff happens even quicker and there is no hope of bringing it back alive if you hit the wall. They don’t call it the Monster Mile for nothing.

Having driven a lap around it in a pace car (driven, not rode along) it’s a scary place at 60 mph. I can’t imagine what it’s like at 170-plus. Get ready for more fun!

They call Dover a self-cleaning oven, because the mess always slides to the bottom of the track. Usually, it’s at a high rate of speed, so there’s a bonus impact waiting on the unfortunate driver who has already slammed the outside wall.

It’s the closest thing to stock-car pinball you’ll ever see!

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