Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ray's Sports Ramblings



This football off season, I told you I had a few special tricks up my sleeve. Today, I unveil one of those for you.

Ray's Sports Ramblings is about to shift into high gear with an in-depth look at the sport of NASCAR. Yes people, NASCAR is a sport. My Friend KK and I will be, over the course of the 32 race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, bringing you some real eye opening looks at all things NASCAR. The first installment is about to shoot out for you to see. So keep an eye out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

2008 Raybestos Rookie of the Year contenders

Before earning respect from the veteran Cup drivers, freshman drivers have to spend a full season with a yellow-striped bumper. The candidate list for the 2008 Raybestos Rookie of The Year contenders in the Sprint Cup Series is slightly different this year. Usually it is made up of former Nationwide (Busch) Series or Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) drivers breaking into the premier NASCAR series. With the exception of Regan Smith, the list is made up of former open-wheel racers with championship trophies that have made the switch to NASCAR.

Regan Smith, who will pilot the Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 01 Chevrolet[/B] in 2008, spent the last six years racking up 102 Busch Series starts and 22 Craftsman Truck Series races covering most of the venues he'll face in 2008 Sprint Cup Series. Before Ginn Racing merged with DEI during 2007, Smith drove the No. 01 for the Ginn Racing team in 7 Cup starts. While at Ginn, Smith had the added advantage of ride-sharing the car with veteran Mark Martin. With Martin as a tutor, Smith was able to quickly gain some Cup experience. While he is the ROTY contender with the most time spent behind the wheel of a stock car Smith will be up against some heavy-duty race car drivers for the title.

Dario Franchitti, the 2007 IndyCar Series Champion, racked up 18 wins in 180 open-wheel starts in both the CART and Indy Series. He's the most recent Indianapolis 500 winner as well. The Scottish-born driver joined Ganassi Racing last season as a NASCAR developmental driver. He drove an ARCA race at Talladega, a Martinsville truck race and the final four Busch Series events at Memphis, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. Plans are in place for him to pull the ARCA, Nationwide, Sprint Cup triple at Daytona in February and running several Sprint/Nationwide companion races to give him valuable seat time. The Daytona 500 will be the 34-year-old driver's debut in the Cup Series but he has already participated in tests with Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge, his 2008 ride, at Atlanta and Nashville. The No. 40, with former driver David Stremme, finished 2007 in the top 35 in owners points giving the team a guarantee start in the first five 2008 Sprint Cup races. That's a definite edge over fellow open-wheel rookies Carpentier and Villeneuve who will have to concentrate on qualifying for those races.

Sam Hornish, Jr., another Indianapolis 500 winner (2006), is a three-time IndyCar Champion (2001, 2002 and 2006). The 28-year-old Ohio native scored 18 wins in the last seven seasons in the IndyCar Series. Roger Penske, his IndyCar owner, has given him some NASCAR seat time over the past two seasons. Hornish raced eleven Busch Series races and made the field for 2007 Cup starts at Phoenix and Homestead. He attempted several others but since the team was not in the top 35 in owners points he failed to race his way into the show. NASCAR allowed Penske to swap owners points between teammate Kurt Busch's No. 2 Dodge and Hornish's No. 77 Dodge to give him a guarantee for the first five races of 2008. Busch has former Cup Champion provisionals to fall back on if needed to make the races.

Canadian-born Patrick Carpentier has been racing since 1985. The 36-year-old driver earned the 1997 ROTY title in the former CART series and made it as high as 3rd in the series points (2002). After CART closed shop, Carpentier moved to the Champ Car World Series and was ranked 3rd in 2004. He spent one season in the IRL before moving over to Daytona Prototype cars (sports cars) and some stock car racing in Canada's version of NASCAR (CASCAR). In 2007 Carpentier ran three NEXTEL Cup and three Busch Series races in preparation for his move to NASCAR. His best outing was the inaugural Busch Series race in his native Canada where he started on the pole and finished 2nd to Kevin Harvick. He will be driving full-time this season in the Gillett Evernham No. 10 Dodge.

Jacques Villeneuve is another Canadian-born driver and yet another Indy 500 winner(1995). The 1995 CART Champion moved into Formula 1 racing in 1996 and finished 2nd in points his first season. The following year he was crowned the 1997 F1 Champion and continued in that series until 2006. Bill Davis gave the 36-year-old an opportunity to run some NASCAR races in 2007. He drove seven races in the Craftsman Truck Series and two in a Cup car. Villeneuve will drive Bill Davis Racing's No. 27 Toyota this season. With his F1 experience, he should do well on the road courses, and probably on the superspeedways, but will need some seat time to be comfortable on tracks like Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond.

With the exception of Smith, they will have to learn to communicate with their NASCAR crew on how the cars are handling during the event. Without a doubt, at least one of this group will be mentioned every weekend this season. You'll hear from the commentators about the "transition" to the bulkier cars, the "need to be patient" while gaining track experience and, finally, "earning respect" from the NASCAR veterans. All-in-all, this should be a very exciting rookie class.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dale Jr. races for his father at Daytona

At night, when he drives through the infield on his way to dinner, Tony Eury Jr. can't help but marvel at all those green 88 banners. "Just a couple of months ago, they were red 8s," he says. "These people went out and spent their money to show who they were rooting for. You see all the green stuff and you know: these people love us."

Eury is cousin, crew chief and consigliere to the world's most famous and popular living driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Since the conclusion of the last disappointing season, they have changed teams, sponsors and numbers, hence the suddenly ubiquitous green 88s, denoting Mountain Dew's Amp energy drink, where there had been red Budweiser logos. Of course, the fans don't care if Earnhardt likes his beverages caffeinated or alcoholic. Their allegiance — likely the most devout in all of American sports — isn't based on the product, but the man.

It's been said, with ample economic justification, that what's good for Junior is good for NASCAR. With that in mind, this was an especially sweet Valentine's Day, as pleasing to the sponsors as it was to the fans. Just five days after winning the Budweiser Shootout, Junior won his qualifying race, the 60-lap Gatorade Duel. These races might not count in the season standings, but they are a harbinger for the race that really counts, or, perhaps, counts most of all.

The 50th running of the Daytona 500 is almost here. It's a momentous occasion for any driver — but most of all, for Earnhardt. Daytona was where his daddy died.

"That's where it happened," says Eury, nodding in the direction of Turn 4. "You hope it never happens again, but you also know it can be around the corner at any time."

Eury speaks for the team, the family and the driver. They are his indivisible concerns. But listening to the crew chief, you can't help but think of Junior. Going around that track as he does, can he ever be cured of his grief?

"No, I don't think he ever will," says Eury. "We lost something valuable here. We miss him every day."

They're not alone. The deep affection fans felt for the father — "the working man who come out of a cotton mill town and made it big ... a small-town guy who made you think hey, that could be me" — has been bestowed upon the son. The fans' green 88s and before that, their red 8s, have been a way to honor the black 3.

"That's probably the one way they can carry that legacy," says Eury. "They're gonna pull for his son. That's the next best thing."

Unfortunately, there's a problem with this. Being a famous son is among the most hazardous jobs in America. Expectations are relentless and unforgiving. What's more, in Earnhardt's case, the anniversary of his father's death inevitably coincides with the biggest Sunday in the sport. It's one thing to share a famous father with the world; it's another to have to share his ghost.

The Man in Black is everywhere at Daytona. His statue marks the entrance like a welcoming icon. Pilgrims in black Goodwrench hats approach as if receiving a benediction. A Car of Tomorrow replica of the No. 3 Monte Carlo is parked outside the media center. He died on the last lap of the 500 blocking for his boy. Religions have been constructed from less potent narratives.

Actually, the attentions directed at Junior do seem almost religious. It's not just the sudden preponderance of green stuff at the track. It's the way grown men and women press their noses to the glass of the #25 garage stall, with that unmistakable look of devotion. Even when the stall is empty — no car, no crew — they gaze upon the tires and the tools as if they were talismans.

Forget the money. How many men could compete in the place where one's father had passed? You wonder how many days Junior wakes up and wishes his name were John Smith.

"Sure," says Eury. "There's a lot of pressure that comes along with that name. But most days he enjoys waking up being Dale Earnhardt Jr."

The Earnhardts and Eurys embrace Daytona and all that the track signifies: money and pressure, the chance to grieve and the chance to be great. Junior himself said as much the other day, after winning the Budweiser Shootout: "This is where we lost him and I want to keep whipping it. You know what I'm saying? I want to make it a special place."

If the last two races make Junior a favorite to win the 50th Daytona, so be it. "We got a great shot," he said after Thursday's qualifying race.

That's the truth, no sense hiding from it. False modesty is as bad as a braggart's conceit. The truth is, Senior's son has a great shot. A win would be good for the family, as victory is palliative for everything from enduring sorrow to outsized expectation. It'll be good for the sport, too, for everybody from those guys in green to the Man in Black.

"I know he's proud of us," says Eury. "Every time we win here it's a tribute to him. It makes us feel better."