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THIRD PLACE

Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

WIN A LONG TIME COMING FOR PENSKE

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Roger Penske’s the kind of billionaire you think you’d be, given the opportunity.

Confident. Extremely articulate. Candid without being cocky. Not one wrinkle in his shirt at the end of a long day — a wrinkle wouldn’t dare. Always in control of himself, if not always the outcome. Most of all, someone who gets his greatest fulfillment in helping others make their dreams come true.

So it’s easy to understand why, as one of his race drivers, Ryan Newman, tried to explain why winning the Daytona 500 was the greatest day of his life, Penske sat a foot away and beamed. His contentment wasn’t over a personal accomplishment, but because of what his entire racing organization had achieved after races here that often bordered on abject futility.

How, you wonder, could a man whose teams have totally dominated the Indianapolis 500 through the decades produce one dud after another in stock car racing’s biggest show?

Until Sunday, that is. Whatever was missing in his NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, whatever it was that drivers Newman and Kurt Busch lacked, Penske has finally uncovered it. Last-lap heroics and teamwork allowed them to derail Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch and sweep to a 1-2 finish.
Said Penske: “It’s just unbelievable.”

No. It was inevitable.

Series of flops

Penske, once an amateur racer before starting into business, dabbled in NASCAR racing for many years as a team owner. In six cracks at Daytona from 1972-77, Penske’s only satisfying moment was a runner-up showing by Bobby Allison in 1975. The rest weren’t worth remembering.

Then in 1991, having built both a racing and a business empire — his United Auto Group boasts 250 car dealerships — he decided to the NASCAR plunge full-time.

Success was instantaneous, with Rusty Wallace winning twice that first season, then upping the ante to 10 victories and a runner-up points finish in ’93.

But when it came to Daytona, Penske’s race team was awful. In the richest, most prestigious race NASCAR’s got — and that has arguably toppled Indy as the biggest race in the world — Penske’s team fell on its face. In the team’s first seven Daytona 500s with Wallace, its best finish was 31st. The average was worse than 35th.

It’s not like Wallace, a former series champion, couldn’t get the job done. The team, Wallace included, just couldn’t get all the pieces together.

Perservance rewarded

Billionaires don’t attain that status by being quitters, and Penske had failed from time to time through the years.

In 2002, for instance, when Kmart shrank from 1,400 to 800 stores, he took a $200 million whipping.
Penske, convinced he could eventually conquer Daytona, stuck by one of his favorite sayings – “Effort equals results” – and his perseverance finally began to soak into every crevice of his organization.

Sunday, after what seemed like an eternity of frustration, it all came together. The beautifully prepared Dodges performed flawlessly when it mattered most. Newman and Busch went to the whip at just the right time, and some 200,000 fans saw them cross the finish line in tandem, separated by less than 1/10th of a second. All those years of coming up a million miles short of winning the Daytona 500, and on this day, Penske had two drivers who could’ve taken him to victory lane.

Newman said he could hear his father, Greg – his race-day spotter – crying over their two-way radio. His mother, who was in Arizona comforting a friend in need, reached him by phone in victory lane, “but she was bawling and I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.”

Kurt Busch came to share in the celebration, tears streaming down his face over their conquest.
Penske took it all in with a smile of total satisfaction.

“If we hadn’t won it this time, he said, “we would’ve come back next year and tried again. This was very special for me.”

At last. At long last.

WELCOME TO SUNDAY ‘SCHOOL’

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Compared to a sprawling campus such as Daytona, li’l ol’ Martinsville Speedway is the one-room schoolhouse of racetracks.

Only a tick over a half mile around, its diminutive size is the perfect place to teach – and learn – racing’s three R’s: rubbin’, retaliation and respect.

t’s a place where the sport’s veterans take no smack from newcomers, no matter their good intentions or the honors adorning their letters of transfer.

Class is in session

For Sprint Cup rookies Regan Smith, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell, Sunday’s Goody’s Cool Orange 500 was akin to the first day at a new school.

Smith was a model student, finishing 14th and on the lead lap. Franchitti did well, too, despite starting dead last and tackling one of the most physically challenging tracks on the circuit. The 2007 Indy Car Series champion probably didn’t have five folks in the stands wearing his T-shirt – er, sweatshirt on a miserably cold, damp day – but he probably earned several hundred fans back at the Chip Ganassi Racing shop with a 22nd-place performance.

Hornish, another Indy Car vet, probably wondered how his car got mistaken for a pinball machine. Considering the way he was shoved and slammed around all day, Hornish had every right to wonder, “What’d I do to them?”

Nothing, Sam. It’s just Martinsville. Here’s your check for 28th place. Be sure you get a tetanus booster in case you nicked yourself on what’s left of your car.

Carpentier, the third open-wheel racing veteran, finished right behind Hornish after having spent the day tussling with a crowd of bullies at recess. Just about the time he’d get in a rhythm out on the track, somebody would send his car spinning. Dizzied, he took his lumps and kept on going.

Move it, rookie

Then there was the youngest kid in the class, 23-year-old McDowell. He’d never competed in a Cup event before and his inexperience showed. Oh, the result was plenty solid — 26th, and ahead of Hornish and Carpentier — but unlike those drivers, he got off on the wrong foot with the upperclassmen and didn’t even realize it at the time.

Given that he was three laps down to the leaders and with the outcome still in question, McDowell didn’t give up ground as readily as Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton believed he should have. Hamlin praised the open-wheel trio for showing the leaders due respect, and rather than put McDowell down, he ignored him altogether in his comments about r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

But Hamlin won the race, and all things are forgiven in victory lane. The guys that finished behind him, Gordon and Jeff Burton, voiced their displeasure, even though they probably couldn’t have caught the winner.

“That’s just a rookie understanding when it’s OK to race that hard, especially guys racing for the lead,” Gordon said, who added that McDowell was in the way “since lap (number) one.”

Burton was far less reserved, unleashing the verbal equivalent of a paddling. There is, he promised, a steeper price to pay for creating a traffic jam in the final laps than having to scrawl “I will not hold up the leaders” a hundred times on the blackboard outside the NASCAR hauler.

“He’s going to learn some manners or I’m going to teach them to him,” Burton said. “He can choose it however he wants it, but it will be one way or the other, and I’d like to think he’d learn it the easy way.”

All of the rookies left here Sunday night much the wiser. They’ll go play in middle school on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway next weekend, but they’d better remember there’s always time for remediation. For those who forget, there’s a second-semester class in the one-room schoolhouse scheduled for October.

Race was tiresome situation for fans

Let’s have a positive attitude and seek a silver lining: If you watched NASCAR’s Allstate 400 on Sunday and were frustrated to the point of kicking the TV, hey, at least it didn’t cost you anything but your time.

If you thought you were aggravated, imagine how the folks who paid for tickets, gas, airfare and hotel rooms feel. They flat out got robbed. In litigious 21st century America, it would be surprising if somebody didn’t file a class-action lawsuit seeking a refund.

If you want to point the finger at a culprit, you’d have to split it 60-40 between NASCAR and Goodyear. Why should NASCAR shoulder much of the backlash? It didn’t build the tires, right?
True, but its decision not to hold an open test session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for cars that have never raced there was about as dumb as it gets. The 2008-and-beyond car — The Car Formerly Known As The Car Of Tomorrow — is a completely different beast from its predecessor. It’s a quantum leap in the right direction when it comes to safety advances, but it’s been an absolute dud in terms of raceability.

This car, we were assured by NASCAR, was going to remove the phrase “the dreaded aero(dynamic) push” from the racing lexicon. That hasn’t happened. This car, we were told, was going to reduce cost for team owners because of its wide-ranging application at multiple racetracks. Not so. This car was going to bring back the door-to-door competition that’s only been seen in restrictor-plate races in recent years. We’re still waiting for that, though not at the risk of holding our breath.

Still, for all the faults in this car as currently constructed, there shouldn’t ever be a race as sorry as Sunday’s, when the longest stretch of racing without a caution flag was 12 laps.

That brings us back to the test session that never was. Instead of opening the gates to Gasoline Alley for a full-scale test in preparation for the COT’s first visit to the Brickyard, NASCAR chose to let Goodyear run a standard tire test with just three teams.

And what’d we get all weekend? Right-side tires that wore to the cords in fewer than 10 laps. And why did that happen? Because Goodyear didn’t get enough information from that three-team test to build the proper tire. It left Goodyear between a radial and a hard place. Make a softer one and you rip it to shreds even faster. Make a harder one and you can’t drive it. Well, that’s not true, either. You can drive it — it’s just scary as heck.

The ultra-hard option was the one utilized in March at Atlanta. You remember that — the race after which Tony Stewart, the second-place finisher, opined that Goodyear didn’t have a clue how to build a decent tire.

Fast-forward the next day to Darlington Raceway, where Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle were Goodyear’s chosen ones for a test on the newly paved asphalt. The tire Goodyear brought there was so good, so fast, that the drivers actually asked for a second test with different tires that would run slower — that’s right, slower. Goodyear and NASCAR both agreed to that, and the Dodge Challenger 500 turned out to be a pretty good show.

Now, why that didn’t happen after the Brickyard test is beyond me, but one test was all that was deemed necessary. In hindsight, boy, was that decision ever off the mark.

NASCAR was left with no choice but to start instituting “competition cautions” so that teams could pit for fresh tires.

It was so strange a scenario that even some of the competitors were bamboozled. “I like what NASCAR did,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said afterward. “That’s the only way we could have put on a show today. I’m ashamed, but there wasn’t much we could do besides load them up and not run at all.”

No, that’d have been Formula One. That actually happened — at Indy, unfortunately — a few years ago when the whiners who ran Michelins pulled their cars off the course after the warm-up lap in protest because they didn’t feel they could be competitive. That left only five Bridgestone-shod cars to actually run the race, if you could call it that.

Earnhardt said he “felt bad” for NASCAR; that the sanctioning body was “going to take a lot of heat for this and they certainly don’t deserve it.”

Oh, yeah, it does – the lion’s share of it, anyway. If NASCAR – and Goodyear — can’t assure that a race can be both safe and competitive, then have the guts to call the race off and stop wasting our time.

And the poor fans’ money.