NASCAR says it's cancelled this year's pit crew championship for lack of sponsorship. But Bruton Smith, who owns Charlotte Motor Speedway, says he will keep the championship alive by finding sponsorship and perhaps running it at his zMax dragstrip
By Mike Mulhern
FORT WORTH, Texas
Well, Chevy's Rick Hendrick bunch and Toyota's Joe Gibbs bunch appear pretty evenly matched so far this season, with their fleets of the 2013s.
The rest of these guys, not so much.
In particular, what's wrong with Ford?
Ford teams -- off the record, naturally, considering NASCAR's willingness, even eagerness, to fine anyone criticizing these new stock cars -- concede they are indeed slower than their two rivals.
Stats over the first six races show that clearly.
Let's look specifically at Las Vegas and California, the two big non-restrictor plate tracks.
At California Toyota drivers led 139 of the 200 laps, Chevy drivers led 19 laps. Ford led 42.
At Las Vegas Chevy drivers led 182 of the 267 laps, Toyota drivers led 72 laps. Ford led only 13 laps, one of those during a stretch of green flag pit stops.
At those two tracks Toyota led 211 laps, Chevy led 201 laps, Ford led 55 laps.
Of the sport's 36 races, 17 are on such mid-sized tracks, showing the importance of running well at those places.
Noticeable in those two events -- Michael Waltrip's Toyota men didn't lead any laps, Jack Roush's Ford men led just one lap.
NASCAR marketeers have never shied away from controversy.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Speeds with these new cars are up just about everywhere. Here drivers Thursday, during a data-test session, were much faster on race setups than last year's pole here (190.369 mph, Martin Truex Jr., in the spring) and also faster than last fall's pole (191.076 mph, Jimmie Johnson).
The fastest so far -- Kurt Busch, whose first lap at 191.993 mph even caught his breath.
However teams did not have to send their cars through NASCAR's inspection station here Thursday. In fact teams didn't even have to test the car they actually plan to race here. Brad Keselowski, for one, tested a car he will not be racing.
NASCAR champ Brad Keselowski: heading to the White House, to meet the President. Will he invite him to a NASCAR race? Wonder which one? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile, one of the hottest stories in the garage Thursday was intense speculation that veteran team owner Chip Ganassi may be considering selling his two-team NASCAR operation to John Menard.
Menard, who owns the Midwestern home improvement chain Menards, is a long-time racer, and he is currently sponsoring his son Paul's NASCAR team, part of the Richard Childress organization.
Paul, however, insists there is nothing to all this. Paul, 32, is currently the lead driver among Childress' four. His biggest win was the 2011 Indianapolis Brickyard 400. His best finish so far this season was eighth at California.
Ganassi and Childress are both Chevrolet men. Childress supplied Ganassi's two teams (with Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya) with engines until this season, when Ganassi switched to Hendrick motors.
Of the sport's top eight team owners, Ganassi this season ranks seventh in finishes. Of particular disappointment is Montoya, who is averaging a 27th place finish; Montoya's last top-10 was at Michigan last June, and his last tour win was at Watkins Glen in the summer of 2010. McMurray's seventh at Martinsville last weekend was his best finish in over a year.
Danica Patrick, coming to Texas off a solid run at Martinsville (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Is there a question about the Fords? Or were Las Vegas and California simply anomalies?
Keselowski, who has switched this season from Penske in-house engines to Roush-Yates engines: "The engines have been great.
"I am a little confused: some people have asked me about the engines. We are significantly further ahead power-wise of where we were last year. That is the best gauge I have. I think that we have a lot to be proud of.
"If we are missing speed, I know it is not in that category."
Some point to Ford's more blunt-nose aerodynamics, which could hurt speed on the straights.
Greg Biffle, who won this race a year ago, says "We plain and simply screwed up at Vegas (where he finished 17th), and I take most of the blame for that. We were just way off with the new car.
"California (he finished sixth) was more of us. We qualified second and had good lap times but had to start at the back with an engine change.
"This track feels good. I had really good speed here, second quick, and the lap tracker our laps look fairly good. So I feel pretty confident we are going to have a decent weekend, with at least a top-10 run (in Friday qualifying).
"We have a good chance at winning. Right place, right time. Two-tires, four tires. Make it on gas, whatever it comes down to.
"I think you are going to see pretty high speeds in qualifying. This is one of the old-school tracks, one of the few that are left, where the tire is super-fast for the first lap and then falls off almost a tenth on the second lap, two-tenths on the third and fourth lap.
"You will see that really fast one lap speed but that is not really a big concern on if we are going too fast or with track records because it slows down so quick."
Jimmie Johnson: back on track, atop the standings...and he won here last fall (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski, who is to be at the White House Tuesday to meet with President Obama, celebrating his NASCAR championship, says this 1-1/2-mile track is a cross between Las Vegas and California: "Vegas is really, really fast. The tires don’t seem to fall off much there. And California is fast, but there is a lot of tire falloff and it is very flat.
"Texas is right in between them. There is a lot of falloff here, but the track is very fast and has a lot of banking.
"The best cars here will be the one that can balance the setup between Vegas and California."
And what about that controversial NRA sponsorship?
"I would really rather stay out of politics and just race," Keselowski says.
"That is certainly not the situation though. Sometimes we get thrown into it whether we want to or not.
"I think the best thing is just to acknowledge it and try to move on.
"I really just wish Tony Stewart or someone would throw a helmet or a punch so it wouldn't be a story.
"I don't think it is a story...and maybe that is part of who I am. I own rifles; I don't own pistols... but I would like to own two of them after Saturday night (the winner gets a brace).
"I enjoy that style of life, and I think we should all move on with it and let people have fun.
"That is all I can say. Let us have fun. I don't think we need to take ourselves that seriously."
Paul Menard: a solid start to the season, top dog at Richard Childress'....and now speculation that his father John Menard may be ready to jump into the waters as NASCAR team owner (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
(Ed. note: this version corrects numbers for laps led by Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford at California and Las Vegas)