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ABC dumps the chase, Ford's new guy arrives in town...it's the NASCAR Week -- Number Two -- in Review

  There's a new kid on the NASCAR block, and Ford's Jamie Allison will be making his debut at Daytona as Ford's new racing boss (Photo: Autostock)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Jamie Allison, the new Ford guy, the new Ford racing boss, munching on some classic Southern fried pickles at lunch the other day, just around the corner from Jack Roush's shops, doesn't quite fit the mold.
   Which may be just another reason why FoMoCo big boss Alan Mulally seems to be doing so well these days, despite a down economy.
   Ford is, not even arguably, the best-running car company in the U.S. at the moment.
   Chrysler-Dodge is increasingly shaky, at least from the outside looking in, at those Fiat guys who certainly don't seem to have NASCAR on their radar. Unless you see some Ferraris in the infield parking lot at Daytona, California or Atlanta in the next few weeks.....
   Toyota is almost in stealth mode – yes, it has taken big bailouts too, only in yen.
   And General Motors....well, what to say about GM? Uh, first, who the heck is running the company?
   Now all that's the big picture stuff, up in Detroit (and who knows what Washington may be thinking about all this).
   But down here in the NASCAR trenches, well, if Ford is so strong out in the marketplace, what the heck happened on the Sprint Cup tour last season?
   How did Rick Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson dominate the battle for the championship, with only his own Chevy teammates for competition?
   That's the obvious question as things warm up for Daytona's SpeedWeeks 2010.

  Edsel Ford (R) and the King. Remember when Richard Petty caused such a storm back in 1969 by switching to Ford? That was some magic. But what will this jump mean this time around? (Photo: Autostock)

  And the next question: where the heck is that new Ford FR9 engine, the one Doug Yates and Roush spent so much time developing, to compete against the 'new' Toyota, Chevy and Dodge engines? If things aren't going well out on the track, well, why not bring out that new engine? It was scheduled for a late spring 2009 debut, which kept getting pushed back, and it didn't make it on to the track until the fall....and it was still in development mold, certainly no Chevy-killer or NASCAR-equalizer.
   Well, the FR9 engine looks like an enigma again this season:
   The Wood brothers, who are again running a limited schedule of Cup events, are to use the FR9 at every race they're in.
    But Ford execs say they still don't have a firm timetable for the full rollout, though they say they're looking at somewhere around Charlotte in late May. And they say when they do make the rollout, it will be a complete changeover for all the Ford teams.
   At Daytona – curiously – Ford teams will be using the FR9 for qualifying, practice and the 150-mile qualifiers, but they'll be switching to the established engine for the 500 itself. (That's allowed at Daytona, without having to give up a qualifying spot.)


  What Ford really needs is for Carl Edwards to have a kick-ass season (Photo: Autostock)


And here's another change for Ford-in-NASCAR in 2010: The company has added to its roster and will have 13 Ford teams at Daytona, including a new Boris Said team, which will apparently be something of a spinoff from the Jamie McMurray number 26 operation.
   Now some rivals are wondering if some of those new Ford teams are simply being added to help burn through the pile of soon-to-be obsolete Ford engine stuff, before the changeover.
   (And there is the NASCAR-Nationwide-ARCA inventory shift to consider this season, as NASCAR pushes its Nationwide teams to make the changeover to the new Nationwide car-of-tomorrow, which will obsolete the current Nationwide cars, which will be shuffled over to ARCA teams....presuming the ARCA series itself has enough viable team owners to absorb the stuff.)
   And the new FR9 engine may have an impact on Ford's Nationwide program too, though just how is not clear. Ford teams felt they have been at a disadvantage on the Nationwide tour under the hood.


  The funniest guy in racing? Maybe so. But Boris Said, one of the world's top road racers, looks like he'll finally get that full-time NASCAR ride he's been looking for (Photo: Autostock)


But back to the guy with the plate of fried pickles in front of him. Welcome to North Carolina, Jamie. Get up to Lexington and try some real barbeque too.
   Allison (no, he's not related to the Alabama gang) is taking over for Brian Wolfe, who Mulally has promoted to a global engineering project, after some 18 months in NASCAR.
   And for those used to dealing with quiet-spoken, mild-mannered engineering types at Detroit racing helms, well, Allison doesn't fit that mold at all.
   First, he's non-stop energy. Maybe it's Red Bull running through his veins, but this guy is high-voltage...and positive.
   And positive is certainly something Ford needs in NASCAR at the moment. Listening to its drivers last season, you could almost sense the energy levels being depleted.
   So when you ask Jamie Allison about 2009 and 'what went wrong,' you get a quick dismissive wave of the hand: "That's history...and we're looking ahead."


   The name Allison means something big in NASCAR...(Photo: Autostock)

   While Allison has been making the rounds of Ford's racing shops near Charlotte, NASCAR's TV world was hitting another bump in the road – a rather huge bump, it would seem: ABC is dumping NASCAR's championship chase, putting it on ESPN.
   Now ESPN is big in the business, of course, and there is a good spin that NASCAR people will try to put out. But the bottom line is this: NASCAR's 10-race title chase is losing network TV.
   Yes, the television world isn't what it used to be (Google "NBC"), but when NASCAR's 'new' TV age dawned in 2001, with that big TV package, NASCAR executives were promoting the fact that this sport was finally on the big league networks.
   Now NASCAR has to argue the other way, that cable is, well, okay after all.
   This ABC-ESPN-Disney move follows a run of criticism – some quite heated -- about that company's handling of NASCAR, from shuffling TV personalities around, to what at times has seemed an almost cavalier approach to this sport. (Remember ABC execs dumping the final miles of the Phoenix chase race for 'America's Funniest Homes Videos,' and NASCAR's weak reaction to that slap in the face?)
   This ABC-ESPN-Disney move also follows two seasons of declining TV ratings for the sport.
   Maybe it is time for The NASCAR Channel. It's just becoming very hard to keep track of where all these races are on the dial, and where all the fluffy pre-race stuff is.
   The second half of the NASCAR season is the ABC-ESPN half, opening with the July Brickyard. But apparently only three of those 17 Cup events will be on ABC itself (the Saturday night shows...and everyone knows Saturday night on TV is traditionally the loneliest night of the week), with the rest on ESPN.
    Isn't that where we came into this thing, so many years ago?
    NASCAR and its TV partners keep throwing stuff out on the air waves – oops, coax cable – and some of it is, well, you watch and you decide (like 'Madcap'?) Too much of it appears haphazard, some even ill-advised, and much certainly not 'Penske-perfect.'


   Has TV made NASCAR racing better, or bigger, or more popular? What effect has television really had on the sport? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


It seems likely that the ABC-ESPN-Disney decision played a role in NASCAR's new-found plans to change up things, like improving the car-of-tomorrow.
   Unfortunately, the sense at the moment is that NASCAR execs don't really have a game plan for 2010, but plan to keep shooting at the target until they hit something.
    Not that there's anything wrong with that. It certainly beats sticking your head in the sand and insisting everything is fine....while fans pull out of the sport and TV ratings fall.
    Now if only all those talking heads on NASCAR TV were just a little more believable....and not so persuaded to toe the company line.


   --  Car owner Richard Childress is dropping plans to run his still-sponsorless fourth Cup team, with Casey Mears, in the Daytona 500. Jack Daniel's withdrew as sponsor at the end of 2009. Mears finished 21st in the Sprint Cup standings.

  Casey Mears: What next? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  -- The 2010 is just about to get underway and the top two drivers to watch – for potential jumps to new teams, and all the rumors that will naturally follow them until they decide – are Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne.
   Ironically both Harvick and Kahne are rumored to be interested in jobs with Tony Stewart. What happens next with the Stewart-Hendrick operation may depend in part on what sponsor Bass Pro Shops decides to do in 2011 (BPS' deal with Chip Ganassi is up at the end of this season, and the company has been on every team owner's hit list for some time.)

   -- Among the many drivers to keep an eye on early this year is David Ragan. So promising at the start of last season, he was pretty much a flop. And with UPS as big-buck sponsor, he's got to deliver more, and faster. Donnie Wingo, the veteran crew chief who has worked with Jamie McMurray, will have his work cut out. Jimmy Fennig, Ragan's crew chief last season, has moved back into the shop to help shop foreman Robbie Reiser. Two Roush newcomers pressing Ragan will be Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse.

  Scott Speed: Great NASCAR name...but can he live up to it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  -- Another 2009 disappointment was F1 guy Scott Speed, who never really got up to speed. Part of his problem – NASCAR's ill-advised testing ban. You can't learn NASCAR racing in a couple of hour-long sessions each Friday.
   Two more to keep an eye on: Sam Hornish Jr., who has the right attitude and who has made progress (and who has Roger Penske's blessing) but who has to make a lot more progress this season to get over the hump, and Jamie McMurray, who never really got going while with Jack Roush (despite that Talladega win).

   -- NASCAR execs are strongly hinting that they may dramatically change the testing rules for this season, which would be good. A Charlotte Motor Speedway (new name now) is set for March, and the new blades could be in place at Bristol or Martinsville.
   Goodyear says it has all the tires teams would need for testing, and all NASCAR has to do is open up Sprint Cup tracks for testing. Jack Roush has suggested opening each weekend a day early for testing, a cost-saving move, since everyone will already be at the track, even if that's not the preferred time to be testing.
   NASCAR officials and executives have been holding a number of meetings with various Cup team owners, drivers and crew chiefs the past two weeks, in almost a frenzy. Some of the official answers should come Thursday January 21st when the Charlotte-NASCAR preseason media tour hits NASCAR's R&D shops.
   Among the proposed new rules: eliminating the yellow out-of-bounds line at Daytona and Talladega (a bad idea, some drivers say) and ignoring hard bump-drafting at those two tracks, unless it gets to hard, in which case NASCAR can always penalize an offender for 'aggressive' driving. Jeff Gordon was criticized by some drivers last fall at Talladega for pressing NASCAR to police the bump-draft (or 'push-draft,' as it is with the new flush bumpers on these cars-of-tomorrow). The yellow line rule is a definite safety issue – ask Ricky Rudd, who nearly got clobbered by gambling Jeff Gordon at Daytona a few years back. Passing in the grass may soon be legal...but it's certainly not very safe.


  Talladega's infamous 'yellow line,' delineating out-of-bounds. Or would you prefer to try passing on the grass? There's nothing wrong with the yellow line rule...the controversies have been about NASCAR's interpretations. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- NASCAR's new rear spoiler rule – going back to the plain flat blade, and dropping the wing (who really made all the money off the production of those wings anyway – can those TV journalists take us behind the lines to find out?) – looks promising. At least it may help keep cars from flying at Talladega.
   However NASCAR now also has to do something about the nose on these cars. And drivers may have to relearn how to play the air behind the old flat spoiler – the air off the lead car is much different with the wing than with the flat blade. (Michael Waltrip has an interesting idea, considering the difficulty drivers have in seeing in and around these stock cars these days – instead of aluminum, use see-through lexan.
   NASCAR began using the wing on the car-of-tomorrow in 2007.


  The legendary Robert Yates (Photo: Autostock)

  Hall of Fame Update: Yes, NASCAR's spiffy new downtown Charlotte Hall of Fame may be classy and all....but it is still controversial, with only five 'inductees,' last fall. The sport of NASCAR racing has had a long-running Hall of Fame since 1965, and more than 80 men and women have been inducted. But NASCAR execs have studiously ignored that (perhaps to help 'weed out' some). The vintage NASCAR Hall of Fame has been run by the National Motorsports Press Association, and the NMPA is still inducting – this year it's car owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske, engine legend Robert Yates, and racer Rusty Wallace.
   Just what the NMPA actually is these days, of course, is a bit unclear, with the demise of newspapers and print journalists. The association has 350 members, though not all are 'media.'

   -- Remember those NASCAR trucking brigades that R.J. Reynolds and U.S Tobacco helped organize as relief efforts in the U.S., using NASCAR big rigs to haul relief supplies to areas hit by disaster? Well, car owner Rick Hendrick is doing his part in the Haitian relief effort, loaning one of his planes to the project.

   --  Robby Gordon hit a slump midway through the South American Dakar Rally, but he's already gearing up for more off-road stuff. He won last season's SCORE championship, and he'll be returning from Buenos Aires and heading straight to Nevada for the Laughlin Desert Challenge.
   VW's Carlos Sainz beat teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah to win the Dakar, by a little over two minutes. Among the Americans, Mark Miller finished third, also in a VW.
   Gordon, in a Hummer, finished eighth overall, six hours down.


  Robby Gordon in the South American Dakar. Too bad General Motors/Hummer didn't put more marketing and promotion around Gordon's efforts. Maybe the Chinese -- who are buying Hummer from GM -- will be more marketing savvy with Robby (Photo: Robby Gordon)

   -- In two curious moves, Phoenix raceway boss Brian Sperber says he's adding some miles to his April 10th Saturday night Cup event, and California's Gillian Zucker says she's taking some miles away from her's.
   The April Phoenix race, which ran right at three hours last year (won by Mark Martin), will be 63 miles longer – that makes it a 375-mile race, billed in kilometers as a '600.' It is to start at 6:30 p.m. ET, and thus should wind up about 10 p.m. ET (8 p.m. Phoenix time). The October race at California's Auto Club Speedway will now be 400 miles, instead of 500. Last fall's 500 ran three and a half hours.

   -- Keeping tabs on Goodyear's tire testing: Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. just finished up two days at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Martin had the fastest laps, at 185.219 mph. Goodyear has had problems with the aging Atlanta surface, which is abrasive; sometimes Goodyear has brought rock-hard tires that have had drivers complaining. The balance between good grip at the 200 mph track and durability has been tricky.

    -- Keeping tabs on NASCAR-NHRA connections: Doug Yates and Jack Roush, through their Roush-Yates engine operation, will be expanding into drag racing this year. Pro Stocker Justin Humphreys will get the Ford horsepower.

   -- Remember that Volkwagen PR thing at Homestead last November? Well, whatever VW execs might think about NASCAR racing, they're nixing anything in Indy-cars.  At the moment VW is once again kicking butt in the Dakar Rally.

    -- Predictions: that Michael Waltrip's operation will finally turn the corner in 2010. He's been at it three years now, and things finally got on track last season. This year he's got Pat Tryson as a new crew chief, which is a big plus, working with fellow newcomer Martin Truex Jr., whose career has languished lately. The leader of the pack should be David Reutimann.

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   Crew chief Pat Tryson, who will be a major addition to Michael Waltrip's operation. Waltrip is stockpiling his team with top-notch people....and some are wondering why rival car owner Roger Penske, who had Tryson the past two seasons, isn't doing a better job running his NASCAR operation. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)












Yellow-Line Rule Not About Safety

Sorry Mike, but I have to disagree with you on this one. The yellow-line rule was never about safety. Citing the Ricky Rudd near-hit in 1999 (the clip can be found here) misses two related points - the incredible and indefensible recklessness of Jeff Gordon (with assistance from Rusty Wallace) and the fundamental flaw of NASCAR's approach to such issues. NASCAR's response to that incident should not have been to change the rules, because then it became about punishing everyone instead of the specific driver responsible.

This is a consistent failing of NASCAR - they make rules or change them instead of addressing who is specifically responsible and thus punish everyone instead of the guilty party. Also one is hard-pressed to find a rule change involving control of the racing that took some measure of it away from the officiating tower and/or the inspection station - if/when NASCAR drops the yellow-line and push-draft rules it will be the first time in memory NASCAR has changed a rule with the result that control of the racing is given back to the racers.

As for the general rationale for the yellow-line rule, in all the years I've watched and studied the sport I cannot find one example of a wreck that happened specifically because of racing below the yellow line. The notion that drivers will pass through the infield grass is absurd given that they almost never did so - Ernie Irvan in the 1994 All-Star Race was the only instance I can remember where a driver tried to actually race through the grass (Earnhardt's 1987 "pass in the grass" wasn't), and Irvan wrecked as a result. It is laughable to think drivers will suddenly be plowing through infield grass if this yellow-line rule is taken away.

Darn it, dude, you're too

Darn it, dude, you're too sharp on this stuff. Of course you're right; Gordon should have been penalized by NASCAR at Daytona....but NASCAR doesn't like to penalize race winners generally (well, except like Ricky Rudd at Sonoma and Regan Smith at Talladega)....Yes, the issue is really about NASCAR's response -- I still rememember the Dale Jr. pass below the yellow line at Talladega and NASCAR's infamous no-call.
now i haven't given much thought to passes in the grass, but that 1979 deal between donnie and cale comes to mind (though it's a roundabout deal), and i seem to remember a few zany passes on the backstretch at talladega where the dirt got kicked up.....
and ryan was pointing out that it's not really 'grass' that is the deal anymore, because just about everyone down there is paved.

darn mike why did abc screw the fans again

mike will you try and found out why abc screwed the fans going in too the chase no over the air tv cable only millons of fans getting scerwed over who dont have cable cause

ratings were too low, I would

ratings were too low, I would venture to say. and abc, IMHO, has never been all that NASCAR-friendly. Now ESPN may pick up the ball; they've got a lot of clout (Monday Night Football, for example), and can exert a lot of punch. but last season tv simply didnt seem to have its act together. even fox was getting socked in the ratings. Hence, the changes we're anticipating this season. changes long overdue in my opinion.
but my question is, given the need to pump up the sport and its ratings and its fans, why are nascar executives dumping on the media -- is the media the reason for nascar's problems? blame the messenger seems to be part of the message nascar has been delivering to its teams and team owners over the past several weeks -- no critical comments will be allowed. ask jimmy spencer.

NASCAR needs more network exposure

What a stupid decision moving nine of ten Chase races from ABC to ESPN. It seems like ESPN is trying to take over the cable television world... the BCS, the X Games, the WNBA, the entire NBA Eastern Conference Finals, the Open Championship...and now this. Yes, ESPN has gotten big ratings from many big sporting events, but even in the era of the increase of cable television, it's still more important for a big sports series to air events on network rather than cable. ABC, with Wide World of Sports and Jim McKay, used to be the mecca of sports television. Now, it isn't airing sports on many weekends. Could it be the integration of ESPN into ABC Sports? Is it the decline of network television ratings? Whatever it is, the networks need sports to survive. CBS and NBC generally air sports on virtually every weekend. PLEASE, ABC, do the same so that your affiliates don't get discouraged with the decline of network television sports. And PLEASE, NASCAR, move the Chase back to ABC immediately, because more network television equals more advertisers.

I think Nascar hit it's peak

I think Nascar hit it's peak a few years back in popularity and with the decline in the economy which isn't helping any sport, I think it is going to take several years before we see Nascar getting back to were it was. I would agree one of the most frustrating part of race day is trying to figure out which channel it is on, they need to setup a couple 800 numbers so that fans can call in and hear an automated messages telling them what channel and network the race will be on. I think if they just had their own network they would be much better off. I love the fact that Jimmie has won 5 times in a row but, in retrospect some of the "on the brink" fans don't like seeing the same person win all the time and they lose interest and stop watching.

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