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Columns/Daily & Internet
First Place
Dave Moody, Sirius Speedway.com

Even in defeat, Max Papis is a winner

            It takes 3/10ths of a second to blink an eye. Last Sunday in Montreal, Max Papis’ dream slipped from his grasp in less than half that time.
            After making a name for himself in Formula One, Champ Car and Sports Car competition, Papis has devoted the last five years of his life to becoming a winner in NASCAR, overcoming numerous setbacks with a boundless, unfailing enthusiasm that has made him a favorite in the Sprint Cup Series garage.           Sunday, at Montreal’s legendary Circuit Gilles Villeneuve road course, Papis made his strongest bid yet for NASCAR victory in the Nationwide Series “Montreal 200.”
            The race appeared to belong to Robby Gordon, but Gordon sputtered out of fuel on a green-white-checkered-flag restart, handing the lead to Boris Said. Bidding for a career-defining NASCAR win of his own, Said looked unbeatable until the race’s final turns, when Papis made a vintage, testosterone-rich move, out-braking one of the best road racers on the planet to snatch the lead away.
            But Papis’ advantage would not last. A victim of its own momentum, his Kevin Harvick, Inc. Chevrolet slid up the track in the final turn, opening the door just enough for Said to counterattack. The two raced neck-and-neck down the final straightaway, as a huge and raucous Montreal crowd roared its approval. Trying to milk every ounce of horsepower out of his engine, Papis briefly hit the rev chip on his way back through the gearbox, crossing the finish line .012 seconds – about four inches – behind Said.
            It was the fifth-closest finish in Nationwide Series history and the closest ever on a road course. The difference between victory and defeat was half the blink of an eye. And for Papis, it was another case of “so close, yet so far.”
            “I was ahead, I was behind. I was ahead, I was behind,” said Papis of the race’s final turns. “At the end of the day, it was an amazing race. I had a blast. It came down to a green-white-checker. This is maybe the first time I’ve had the chance to sit in a car that legitimately can win, and it came down to the last corner.
            “I’m really proud. I know it’s a second-place finish, but it’s equal to any of my best wins.”
            After spending the last two seasons as a part-time Sprint Cup competitor in Germain Racing’s #13 GEICO Toyota, Papis will yield his seat to veteran Casey Mears beginning this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway and race full-time on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2011. Most racers would consider that move a demotion, but Papis is devoid of such ego. He says -- and genuinely seems to believe -- that the decision gives him an opportunity to race more often and more competitively in 2011.
            It is a move he says he welcomes.
            “I’m super excited about the opportunity to drive the GEICO Tundra in the Truck Series next year,” insists Papis. “We thought about how best to build our program, and instead of running the last four or five Cup races this season, I thought it would be better to start focusing right away on our Truck program for next year; working for the future.
            “I’m excited because I have always wanted to run a full season in any NASCAR Series. That is the only way to learn and improve as a driver. Germain Racing has a lot of experience and winning equipment (in the Truck Series), and it’s an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. This is what I came to America for; to be successful and win races in NASCAR.”
            Papis said he has enjoyed his time in the Sprint Cup Series and cherishes the milestones that he and his team achieved.
            “In just 30 Sprint Cup races – 18 last year and a dozen or so this year -- I was able to race my way into the Daytona 500 on the final lap of my qualifying race, drive in the Brickyard 400 and spend some time running in the Top-10,” he said. “We did a lot, and I’m proud of how far we came. But it’s tough to race for two weeks and sit out for two. It’s difficult to improve when you’re doing a `start and park,’ instead of running the entire race. Now, I’m excited to continue my adventure in the Truck Series. We’ll be running full races -- up front with a chance to win -- and I’ll have an opportunity to learn and improve at a much faster rate.
            “This is a good thing for me. This is what I want.”
            In February of 1996, Papis burst onto the national scene with a stunning drive in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Driving the final stint of the annual, round-the-clock affair in a battered Ferrari held together with duct tape, Papis unlapped himself by passing leader Wayne Taylor, then strung together one “fastest lap of the race” after another, before coming up just short of Taylor in the final rundown.
            Massimiliano Papis – native son of Como, Italy -- became “Mad Max” that day in Daytona Beach, Florida. And in the years that followed, the son-in-law of open wheel legend Emerson Fittipaldi has proven his willingness to do whatever it takes to be a NASCAR star. He failed to grab the brass ring Sunday, falling short by the smallest of margins. But make no mistake about it, Max Papis will succeed one day.
            He is unwilling to accept anything less.


It’s only a number…

            Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will pay tribute to his late father this July by driving a replica of Dale, Sr.’s legendary #3 Wrangler Chevrolet in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition at Daytona International Speedway.
            And some people are pretty darn PO’ed about it.
            Junior’s Daytona ride was unveiled recently on what would have been his father’s 59th birthday; the result of an unprecedented collaboration between JR Motorsports – which will supply the car -- Richard Childress Racing – which holds a copyright on the familiar #3 – and Teresa Earnhardt, who has the final say on all things Earnhardt Senior. Teresa, Junior and Kelley Earnhardt stood side-by-side at the unveiling; the first time all three have appeared together in public since the day NASCAR’s most popular driver announced that he would bolt Dale Earnhardt Inc., for Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. All three hailed the move for what it is; a tribute to the memory of the late, seven-time Sprint Cup champion.
            Despite their unified front, however, the Internet message boards and satellite radio switchboards were instantly inundated with irate fans who somehow viewed the move as an insult to the memory of their fallen hero.
            “Nobody should EVER drive the #3 again,” said many, conveniently ignoring the fact that Earnhardt, Jr. drove the #3 in a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series races in 2002, while Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, has been campaigning an almost identical, black #3 Chevrolet on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series all season.
            “It’s an insult to his memory,” wailed others, amid widespread calls for NASCAR to forbid the tribute, or establish a new precedent by retiring Earnhardt’s #3 for all time.
            "This was an idea that came up as a way to pay tribute to my dad," said an incredulous Earnhardt, Jr. of the criticism. "The Wrangler car is definitely in the Top 10 coolest cars that have ever been on the race track. A lot of people identify with it, and I can't think of a better way to honor my dad and celebrate his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame than to bring the Wrangler colors back with the No. 3 on the side. I think everybody knows I'm pretty careful about (my father’s legacy). It just seems like a reasonable opportunity and if there is ever a time to do it, this is one of those times."
            Earnhardt said he opposes the idea of retiring numbers, calling the notion “ridiculous. The #3 meant a lot to Daddy and… to a lot of race fans, but there's some kid growing up that was never a Dale Earnhardt fan that drives the #3 and might want to be #3 all his life. To not give him that opportunity just ain't fair."
            He also commented on the symbolism of him, his sister and their stepmother appearing publically for the first time in years, saying, "this day is all about my dad. He'd be happy about this.”
            Kelley Earnhardt went a step further, saying, "If he was here, I'm pretty sure we'd all still be together ... Dale Jr. would have never left DEI."
            "Me and Teresa always had a lot of respect for each other," said Dale, Jr.  "Dad had a way of bringing everybody together. Everybody worked together for the good of my father."
            Just like they’re doing now.
            The tumult over Junior’s Daytona tribute is ill-conceived and distasteful, a knee-jerk reaction if there ever was one. The #3 did not make Dale Earnhardt who he was. In fact, just the opposite is true. Earnhardt made the #3.
            NASCAR pioneers Joe Littlejohn, Herschel McGriff, Dick Rathmann, Paul Goldsmith, Tim Flock, Cotton Owens, Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Charlie Glotzback and Buck and Buddy Baker (among others) all spent considerable time behind the wheel of #3 entries in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Junior Johnson authored a Hall Of Fame driving career with #3 on his door, and Childress himself used it throughout his 12-year driving career. Ricky Rudd steered Childress’ #3 Chevrolet between Earnhardt’s two driving stints with RCR, proving beyond all doubt that the #3 had its own claim to fame, long before “The Intimidator” came along.
            And for the record, Earnhardt did most of his racing in the minor leagues in a series of cars with his father’s traditional #8 on the doors, before winning the first of his seven Cup championships in – gasp – a #2 Wrangler-backed Chevrolet owned by Rod Osterlund.
            The facts don’t lie. Dale Earnhardt was a champion with or without the #3 on his door. The #3 won championships with and without Earnhardt at the wheel. Numbers are nothing more than symbols; a splotch of paint (or these days, a hunk of vinyl) on the door of a race car. They have no more to do with success or failure than the color of the car, and nobody’s lobbying NASCAR to retire Goodwrench black or Petty blue.
            Numbers are not heroes, the men who drive them are.
            If this tribute is good enough for Richard Childress, Dale, Jr., Kelley and Teresa Earnhardt, it’s good enough for me. And it ought to be good enough for you, too.

Mark Martin deserves better

            Tony Stewart said recently that Stewart Haas Racing has no plans for a third NASCAR Sprint Cup team in 2011. There has been rampant speculation that SHR could be home for Kasey Kahne next season, filling the one-year gap between Kahne’s departure from Richard Petty Motorsports and his 2012 debut with Hendrick Motorsports. But Stewart said there was “probably a zero percent chance we'll expand to a third team for next year,” adding that the team is still seeking a sponsor to replace Old Spice, and that there are unsponsored races on Ryan Newman’s car, as well.
            “We're talking to a lot of great people (and) there's a lot of good opportunities out there,” he said. “It's just a matter of finding a package that works for somebody.” He said Stewart Haas Racing could ramp up to three – or even four – cars very quickly, but not without having the proper funding in place.
            With SHR apparently out of the running, where will Kahne end up in 2011? Rumors continue to circulate through the Sprint Cup garage that Rick Hendrick has offered Mark Martin options to vacate the seat in the #5 Chevrolet a year early for another ride, allowing Kahne to drive the car next season. Martin has repeatedly denied those reports, saying he intends to fulfill the balance of his contract with HMS.
            “I had to quit following the sport because it kinda made me sick,” said Martin in an interview with NASCAR Race Hub. “The media didn’t understand, didn’t get it and couldn’t seem to deliver the message correctly. They only delivered the message they wanted to deliver, which was sensationalized. It was disgusting.”
            Martin’s Business Manager, Benny Ertel, called the reports “aggravating,” saying his driver has grown tired of answering the same questions, week after week. “It’s the same thing, over and over again,” he said. “We walk into the media center and someone immediately raises their hand and asks about where Mark will be racing next season. Mark has answered the question a thousand times and it’s always the same answer. `I will be driving the #5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports next season.’ That’s as simple as it is, but some reporters just don’t listen.”
            “Randy Pemberton went on Sirius NASCAR Radio the other day and said Mark will be driving for Red Bull next season,” said Ertel. “There’s not a shred of truth to that statement, and he never bothered to ask Mark, Rick Hendrick or anyone else about it. If he had asked, he would have been told -- in no uncertain terms -- that it was a load of hooey.
            “I don’t know what’s so difficult to understand,” said Ertel. “Mark Martin will drive the #5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports next season. Period.”
            Hendrick Motorsports has vehemently denied reports of Martin’s departure, and an HMS spokesman vowed that the #5 team will not allow the constant media speculation to become a distraction.
            There is a rumor born every minute in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage, and the media has every right to investigate and report on them all. It seems clear, however, that Martin intends to finish out his contract with Hendrick Motorsports by driving the #5 Chevrolet next season. With that said, it seems that Kahne will only drive for Hendrick next season if Martin is forced out of the ride against his wishes. Rick Hendrick has been a team owner in NASCAR since 1984, and has never shown a propensity for that sort of cold-blooded backstabbing.
            At age 30, Kasey Kahne is the future of Hendrick Motorsports. Martin, at the ripe old age of 51, is not. But the Batesville, Arkansas native is still a valuable part of the team’s present, and he deserves better than to be asked the same tired question, over and over again.

Smith must learn to compromise

            Bruton Smith failed to secure a second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race for his Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011, after being unable to convince NASCAR that Las Vegas is a better place to end the season than Homestead-Miami Speedway.
            The flamboyant Speedway Motorsports, Inc., CEO is not accustomed to taking “no” for an answer, and he’s also not very good at it. He is a consummate salesman, and if he can’t talk you into seeing things his way, he’s not above threatening and pressuring his way to the desired effect. Just ask the town fathers in Concord, NC – who once attempted to stand between Smith and a drag strip he wanted to build on the grounds of Charlotte Motor Speedway – or the Police Chief in Loudon, NH, who weathered a recent storm of threats by Smith to move a race out of New Hampshire Motor Speedway over a $100,000 dispute surrounding the cost of police protection. Sources say he recently attempted to play “hard ball” with NASCAR, as well, requesting a second Sprint Cup race in Las Vegas and insisting that be on the final weekend of the season. NASCAR reportedly declined to be bullied, leaving LVMS with just one race for at least another year.
            Smith hates to lose, and couldn’t resist needling NASCAR about the one that got away, even while announcing a first-ever Sprint Cup date for his new Kentucky Speedway.
            "I know the press, they want it to happen that way,” said Smith of a proposed Las Vegas championship finale. “It'd be a good thing if it did. We've got the awards banquet there, so maybe the last race of the year, too. We'd make it a big, big thing, because that's a championship race. It'd be big for the sport, (and) we're all about what's good for the sport."
            "The press is pushing that as much as I am, and when the press is behind something, it usually gets done. I'm real thrilled about that."
            NASCAR, however, sees it differently. Pressed by reporters about Smith’s repeated requests to host the season finale, NASCAR Vice President Steve O'Donnell said simply, “He asks for a lot of things. We look at the schedule every year, and we're happy with the championship at Homestead. We think we're really building something. I know (Bruton) is lobbying, but we're pretty happy where we're at."
            O'Donnell said there are multiple factors to be considered before relocating a race, especially when moving an important event from International Speedway Corporation, (owners of Homestead-Miami) to Smith’s rival Speedway Motorsports, Inc. He revealed that a number of compromises were made to bring Sprint Cup racing to Kentucky next season, including some by ISC. “We've got a race in Kentucky now, and the race they wanted to realign was Atlanta,” said O’Donnell. “I don't think anyone thinks it's smart to race in Kentucky in March. Other tracks (had to) move around to free up dates for Kentucky, and what gets lost sometimes is that ISC also had to cooperate. There was a spirit of cooperation on both ends; a give and take.”
            As part of their decision making process, NASCAR almost certainly considered the effort put forth by ISC to make Homestead-Miami Speedway a championship-worthy venue. The original, 1995 version of HMS was virtually unraceable; a flat, square layout with a single workable racing groove and no discernable passing. Homestead received a facelift in 1996, with the apron widened by seven feet in an ill-fated attempt to expand the racing groove. Finally, in the summer of 1997, an $8.2 million makeover converted the track to its present configuration, with traditional rounded turns, variable-degree banking and lights that enabled night racing for the first time. Once one of the least competitive ovals on the circuit, Homestead-Miami now ranks as one of the best, providing close, competitive events for all three of NASCAR’s National Series.
            Also of note is the relationship between Homestead-Miami Speedway and Ford Motor Company; longtime sponsors of Ford Championship Weekend. The automaker has spent millions of dollars marketing the event and building its brand in South Florida, as part of a long-term partnership that reportedly runs through the 2014 season. That contract requires the track to host all three season finales, and would become null and void if Homestead were moved to an earlier spot in the Chase.
            All those factors – and others – combined to keep Homestead-Miami Speedway and Ford Championship Weekend on next season’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series calendar. Smith is, of course, free to request a venue change again next season. And when NASCAR returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2011, he is certain to reprise his now-annual refrain, extolling race fans to “tell NASCAR you want a second race here in Las Vegas!”
            The call is largely his to make, so long as he’s willing to compromise and accept a date other than the season finale.

The problem with Dale Junior

            Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
            After an abysmal 2009 campaign that saw him finish 25th in points while his Hendrick Motorsports teammates claimed the top three spots in the championship standings, 2010 was supposed be a season of vindication for the man known simply as “Junior.” Team owner Rick Hendrick made “fixing the 88 team” his number-one offseason project, and when the AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet began the season with a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, it looked like he had made good on that promise.
            Since then, however, it’s been one long, downward spiral for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. With just four races remaining until the 2010 Chase field is set, it’s becoming clear that Earnhardt will once again be on the outside, looking in. With just two Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in 22 starts this season, he left Watkins Glen 16th in points; 121 behind 12th place Mark Martin. Based on the performance of his #88 team lately, it’s an insurmountable deficit.
            A month ago, there seemed to be a chance. Back-to-back Top-10 finishes at New Hampshire and Daytona provided a brief infusion of momentum and inspired hope that Earnhardt and crewchief Lance McGrew could rally the troops for a late drive to the Chase. Ignore the fact that his Daytona finish came only after a late-race melee eliminated a dozen cars and elevated him from the mid-teens to fourth.  A lackluster 23rd at Chicagoland brought the team back to earth, and was followed by 27th-place showings at Indianapolis and Pocono and a woeful 26th last week at Watkins Glen after qualifying 40th.
            “We’re not a good race team,” said Earnhardt recently, voicing an opinion the rest of NASCAR Nation adopted some time ago.
            How things have changed since the start of the season, when Earnhardt expressed confidence, optimism and an air of bravado that energized his fan base. "Our goal is to win as many races as we can, win a championship, challenge for the championship," said Earnhardt at the time. "I think anything less than three (wins) this year, I'd be a little disappointed."
            Disappointment doesn’t begin to describe it.
            Earnhardt drove like a beaten man Sunday, calling his car “the worst I have ever driven." He jousted feebly with drivers like Travis Kvapil, David Gilliland and Regan Smith; all of whom have a tiny fraction of his financing, manpower and resources at their disposal. He looked like a man counting the days until another nightmare season can be put in the rearview mirror, not the man who vowed before a fawning SpeedWeek crowd to be “ruthless from the first lap to the last."
            Diehard Earnhardt fans insist that his 16th-place championship standing is nine positions better than a year ago. And that, they say, qualifies as progress. But when your name is Earnhardt, “better” isn’t good enough. Nothing short of “best” will do.
            A long line of scapegoats has walked the plank on Earnhardt’s behalf in recent seasons. It began with Teresa Earnhardt, the Evil Stepmother who refused to provide him with the resources necessary to win. The DEI engine department took its share of the blame after a slew of motor failures prevented Junior from taking his rightful place at the head of the NASCAR class. Tony Eury, Jr., was pilloried for his inability to provide Earnhardt with winning racecars, much the way McGrew is criticized today. Even Hendrick himself is now subject to scrutiny, as fans wonder how their driver can continue to struggle so horribly.
            "I don't really put a whole lot of pressure on myself,” said Earnhardt once. “I've already accomplished more and gotten further in the sport than I ever dreamed." And on that point, perhaps he is correct.
            Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with being a 12th to 15th-place driver at the highest level of the sport, even if your name is Earnhardt. Perhaps it’s okay to be a two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, rather than a seven-time Sprint Cup king.
            Maybe the problem isn’t Dale Earnhardt, Jr., after all.
            Maybe the problem is us, and our expectations.

The Ump may be blind, but he’s not a crook

            Denny Hamlin called NASCAR on the carpet in the moments following the “Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400” at Michigan International Speedway, accusing officials of manufacturing a phantom caution to tighten up the field in the race’s final laps.
            Hamlin held a huge lead with 15 laps remaining when a debris caution eliminated his 10-second advantage. He easily fended off the advances of Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch to claim his fifth win of the 2010 season, but climbed from his FedEx Ground Toyota and lambasted what he claimed was an attempt by the sanctioning body to intentionally manipulate the outcome of the race.
            “This is show business,” said Hamlin, adding that he expected the late caution flag. His comments touched off the biggest avalanche of conspiracy theories since Tony Stewart’s ill-fated “WWE” analogy a few years back, and while some of his fellow drivers supported his claim, others did not. Second-place Michigan finisher Kahne said he observed debris on the track prior to the final caution, while Ryan Newman said he actually ran over the debris, causing damage to his car that helped drop him to a 32nd-place finish.
            A week later, Hamlin was still in an accusatory mood.
            “There is always debris around the track,” he said to reporters at Infineon Raceway. “You can call anything debris... and that it is a legitimate safety hazard, but I just think it’s the timing. (NASCAR says) ‘OK, there it is, let’s pick it up and regroup.’ For the sake of show, that’s OK. But for the sake of competition, it’s not always the right thing.”
            The Joe Gibbs Racing driver tempered his comments somewhat, saying, “If NASCAR had let (the race) go, people were going to be talking about a boring race. That’s something we don’t want, either. I think that sometimes, they just don’t throw the caution. Sometimes they just kind of let it go, when maybe things are getting mixed up. Other times, when things are spread out, (they say) `Let’s tighten it back up.’
            “You don’t have to be so smart to realize that these things are just by chance.”
            NASCAR denied Hamlin’s claims – of course -- with spokesman Ramsey Poston saying officials throw caution flags for debris whenever they believe safety could be compromised. “When we identify something, or there is something on the track that can’t be identified, we are going to err on the side of safety and throw the caution,” he said. “Cautions exist for the safety of the competitors and fans, and we take that very seriously. I suspect drivers would have a different point of view if they were to hit that piece of debris... and ruin their day, or worse.” He added that officials often receive false reports of debris on the track from drivers hoping to benefit from a late caution, further complicating their jobs.
            Poston also said it is up to the drivers – not NASCAR -- to put on a good show.
            “The racing is in the hands of the drivers,” he said. “They are the ones who are responsible for putting on a good show by going out and racing as hard as they can. We can’t get goaded into going lax on safety, and we won’t.”
            Second-guessing and complaining about the referee are common practices in every sport. But only in NASCAR do competitors accuse the officials of being – not only incompetent – but corrupt. Only in our sport do drivers like Denny Hamlin accuse the umpire of intentionally making an incorrect call, in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the game. NASCAR could silence the conspiracy theorists by fining drivers who publically criticize officials. Every other professional sport does it, as does the NCAA. But NASCAR chooses to let its athletes vent, even when they put their own best interest ahead of the integrity of the sport itself.
            Drivers openly admit “fudging” debris reports in an effort to draw late-race caution flags, and some have even created their own debris cautions by tossing items onto the racing surface. The athletes clearly cannot be trusted to provide honest, accurate information on track conditions, so the responsibility must necessarily fall on the officials.
            Did NASCAR blow the call at Michigan? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. It’s all a matter of perspective and personal agenda, and nobody (NASCAR officials included) knows with 100% certainty where the truth lies.
            In the end, perhaps we should adopt the same attitude embraced by fans of other professional sports. We don’t have to like the call, but we do have to accept it and trust that while the referee may be blind, he’s not a crook.