There might be only three guys in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing who have it better right now than Jamie McMurray — Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — even though McMurray isn’t one of the 12 drivers this year in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
McMurray continued his banner season with a victory last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jamie Mac’s three victories this season came at the three most prestigious tracks in NASCAR – Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte.
I wrote this before, but McMurray’s primary sponsors, Bass Pro Shops and McDonald’s, must be pretty stoked these days. I know I’d rather benefit from the exposure of winning the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and a race at Charlotte and miss the Chase than make the Chase and go winless, as Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth have done so far this season.
Only Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick should be happier than Jamie Mac these days because they’re the only three drivers with a chance to lift the Sprint Cup on Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson finished third at Charlotte, with Hamlin fourth, stretching JJ’s lead to 41 points over Hamlin in the standings. Harvick is third, 77 points back.
Everyone else from fourth-place Jeff Gordon to 12th-place Clint Bowyer are at least 156 points behind Johnson. They can turn out the lights on 2010, Irene. With just five races remaining, they’re toast.
While most media members and fans think Johnson is easing away from Hamlin heading into Martinsville this weekend, Dustin Long begs to differ. He believes this could be Hamlin’s Chase to lose and presents an interesting statistical case.
Kasey Kahne’s lost season continued with illness and a third brake failure Saturday night at Charlotte, and the relations between Kahne and Richard Petty Motorsports plunged to an even deeper malaise. Kahne claimed illness for his reason for leaving the team after his early accident, yet he was healthy enough to run a 5K race for charity the next morning. Granted, RPM has provided Kahne with cars barely worthy of Fred Sanford’s junkyard this season.
It’s an ugly example of how a lame-duck driver and team should not end a partnership.
There was some good news about NASCAR’s plummeting TV ratings. The ABC telecast of the Charlotte race attracted a 2.9 rating, just a 3 percent drop from last year. It’s a sign of the times that a single-digit drop is cause for relief, but at least the bleeding was staunched a bit.
ESPN and NASCAR executives met over the weekend in Charlotte to discuss the TV ratings problem. Here’s a suggestion: pony cars. Sprint Cup Series cars need to look like their cousins on the street. I remember watching Winston Cup races in the late 80s and early 90s with Chevy Monte Carlos and Luminas, Buick Regals, Oldsmobile Cutlasses, Pontiac Grand Prixs and Ford Thunderbirds that were distinguishable and also looked like their street counterparts.
NASCAR wanted to escape the almost-weekly bleating from teams begging for changes to those front noses and rear deck lids to compensate for some sort of performance disadvantage, which was a massive headache for its technical staff. But those technical spats were part of the fun back then. They kept fans entertained. Chevy fans jeered Ford fans when Ford teams came to the NASCAR trailer begging for a new nose for the T-Bird, and vice-versa.
That’s all gone now. It needs to return. Hopefully sooner than later.
NASCAR boss Brian France announced at Charlotte that NASCAR is introducing E-15 gasoline as its fuel of choice next season. Sorry, there’s nothing new there. The IZOD IndyCar Series has run on 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol since 2007, and the American Le Mans Series has used a variety of alternative fuels for even longer. Plus it’s hard to take a green initiative very seriously from a series that still uses carburetors instead of fuel injection.
Most importantly, E-15 isn’t going to put butts into seats. Rivalries will, said Jeff Gordon. He should know. The rivalry between “Boy Wonder” Gordon and “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt from the mid-90s until Earnhardt’s death in 2001 helped propel NASCAR into the sports stratosphere.
That rivalry worked because it was real. It wasn’t created and slickly packaged by marketing or PR minions as part of some expansion strategy.
MotoGP does not have a rivalry problem. All four of the “aliens” – the top riders in the series – either hate each other or someone on the MotoGP grid. New World Champion Jorge Lorenzo and Fiat Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi are as friendly as General Custer and Sitting Bull. Lorenzo and standout Dani Pedrosa have been bitter, caustic rivals since their boyhood days racing in Spain. Hell, the king of Spain had to force them to shake hands once on the podium. Casey Stoner seems to piss off nearly everyone on the grid at some point.
Even friends such as seven-time World Champion Rossi and 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden treat each other on track like the Hatfields and McCoys. Rossi prevailed in a sizzling, shoulder-bumping duel with Hayden for third place on Sunday in the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island.
There was a bit of off-track news at frigid Phillip Island. Mika Kallio confirmed his disappointing tenure of nearly two seasons with the Pramac Ducati team was over after this race. Spanish veteran Carlos Checa will return to MotoGP to replace Kallio for the final two races of the season, at Estoril, Portugal, and Valencia, Spain.
And it looks like one of the biggest pissing matches this fall in MotoGP – Valentino Rossi vs. Yamaha – was settled at Phillip Island. Rossi wanted to test his 2011 Ducati at the major test the day after the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix next month, but Yamaha – stung by Rossi’s defection to Ducati – insisted it would hold him to his contract through Dec. 31.
But Yamaha bosses supposedly told Rossi last weekend that he can test the Ducati at Valencia.
In other series, F1 team bosses are flirting with the idea of two-day races after heavy rain forced the Japanese Grand Prix to be compressed into 48 hours. Two-day shows are great for the teams, but what about the fans who enjoy seeing three days of on-track action? What about the racetracks that need three days of gate revenue to stay afloat? Tracks playing host to F1 races probably would need 30 days of on-track F1 action to afford the extortion, er, sanctioning fees charged by Bernie Ecclestone.
Once again, the F1 paddock can’t see the world any farther than the end of its aloft noses.
Then again, a two-day show might be a good idea for the maiden Korean Grand Prix this weekend, which will take place on a new track surface featuring asphalt that has cured for less than two weeks. This is the pinnacle of motorsports?
In an interesting story that flew under the NASCAR-centric media radar, the DTM German touring car series announced it was teaming up with NASCAR and Grand-Am to export its exciting product to the U.S. starting in 2013.
Most American race fans probably haven’t heard of the DTM, let alone have seen it. The DTM is the NASCAR of Germany, a very popular domestic series featuring high-performance touring cars from Mercedes-Benz and Audi that race on road and street circuits. BMW is joining the series in 2012 and is expected to join Merc and Audi in the American series.
It’s expected the American DTM series will serve as a support series for the Grand-Am series, bringing more factory involvement to that sanctioning body, which is owned by NASCAR. The arrival of the DTM also is a direct shot aimed over the bow of Grand Am’s rival, the American Le Mans Series, regardless of any denials from Grand-Am and NASCAR officials.
DTM cars are serious, high-tech racing machines that produce some serious fender-banging action. You’ll dig the DTM if you’re one of those, like me, who think the two Cup road course events each year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma are among the best races of the season.
Finally, the NASCAR world lost three quality, talented people last week when longtime racing journalists Jack Flowers and Beth Tuschak, and Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jeff Byrd died. Godspeed to all three.