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Columns
Fifth Place
Dave Kallman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

 

Chasing Jimmie
            OK. Can we be done with the 2011 NASCAR season preview now?
            I mean, that’s been the one constant for five years, the name on the top of the Sprint Cup standings at the time of the year when the mid-seven-figure checks are written. To expect a different outcome – to reach into your pocket and pull out actual currency and place a wager – would require over-the-top optimism, inside information or a complete departure from good sense.
            Now, having said all that, Johnson and his team showed last year that what they have made look easy isn’t always so.
            And as Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin demonstrated, the reigning five-time champion can be beat with regularity. To stop Johnson short of No. 6 will be as much about when someone finds an edge as it is about who or how.
            The question of whether anyone can unseat Johnson will be just one of the myriad topics – along with engineering, economics, politics, public perception and personnel – to be discussed over the coming nine months.
            The first green flag is set to wave Saturday night over the non-points Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway, and the season gears up for real with the Daytona 500 eight days later.
            Besides a handful of drivers with different teams, sponsors or numbers, the first thing fans are likely to notice is a reconfigured front end on the cars themselves.
            Gone are the braces that held the shelf-like splitter that made these cars look like road-racing sedans of the 1980s. They’ve been replaced by a more shapely piece that, like the removal of the car’s wing last year, many fans will find pleasing.
            From a performance standpoint, the move should be immaterial. The same can be said for the off-season’s other big technical change: the move to E-15, an ethanol-gasoline blend.
            Both will be mentioned endlessly, though, particularly the fuel because of the national political football ethanol has become.
            Such also is the case for the one-point-per-position scoring system. The 43-1 format ought to be a little simpler to understand but won’t change the competition.
            “The only way it would be different is if you only got points for the top 10 positions and you were running 11th, you might race differently then or something,” Jamie McMurray, the defending Daytona 500 winner said. “But you’re not going to do anything different as a driver.”
            The Chase was tweaked again, providing for the addition of as many as two race winners not among the top 10 in points (as McMurray was last year). The championship shootout remains largely unpopular, but it is here to stay. As much as racing is different from one-team-against-another games, the champion in every other major professional sport in the country is determined by a playoff.
            It’s a matter of debate just how much fans unhappy with the Chase are to blame for declines in ticket sales and TV ratings. The drop has been obvious, though, compared with the peak of a decade ago. Some in the sport have gone so far as to suggest that the mere mention of the decreases has actually accelerated them.
            Given that, it will be interesting to watch those trends this year, especially for the sponsors, teams and track operators with a financial interest in NASCAR. The effect of a soft economy has hit the sponsor-driven sport of racing as hard as any.
            This year, a large class of potential free-agent drivers also will feel that firsthand.
            “A lot of us had some pretty rich deals in the heyday,” said Greg Biffle, whose contract with Roush Fenway Racing runs through 2011. “It's gonna get reset, there’s no doubt.” Others in the same position include Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman.
            Under ordinary circumstances, that would make for a great “Silly Season.” But with most of the top teams maxed out at four cars and with funding scarce, there’s not much chance for a big shuffle.
            So it appears most of the action in the garage is already done for the year. Hendrick Motorsports has been reworked with a three-way crew-chief swap designed to give Jeff Gordon his best chance for a fifth title, Mark Martin a shot at his first and Dale Earnhardt Jr. another opportunity to turn around an embarrassing slide. Johnson’s team, which pulled a surprising midrace crew change in the third-last race, has settled on a new over-the-wall gang, at least for now.
            Richard Petty Motorsports has been reduced from four cars to two but is nonetheless rejuvenated. With help from DGP Investments and Medallion Financial Corp., the iconic seven-time champion is back in charge of the team left in financial shambles by previous majority owner George Gillett. NASCAR is stronger because of that.
            Red Bull has Brian Vickers back after a 2010 season lost to blood clots and has added Kasey Kahne for a stopover year on his way to Hendrick. That puts the team in the best position of its five-year history.
            Roush Fenway was buoyed by a strong finish to 2010 that included Edwards winning the final two races. He, Biffle and Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion from Cambridge, all expect to run at the front regularly.
            “What makes me optimistic is it’s not like we had one trick or one thing we did at the end of the year that was better,” Edwards said. “It’s the engine and the pit crew and the cars and the attitude around the shop . . . all of those things, I feel, have made us faster, so those are the things I’m excited about. I hope it works out.”
            Hamlin, the leader at Joe Gibbs Racing, is ready to pick up where he left off in an eight-win season while eliminating the poor qualifying and mistakes that allowed him to slip into Johnson’s clutches.
            And at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick will attempt to improve upon the statistics that left him third in 2010. Harvick won three times, led the standings for most of the pre-Chase season and scored an average finish of 8.7, more than three positions higher than anyone else, and that still wasn’t good enough to beat Johnson when the title was on the line.
            “How do you bet against him right now?” asked Tony Stewart, who by winning his second title in 2005 was the last man to finish ahead of Johnson.
            “Nobody’s seen anything that proves that he’s not on track to do it again.”

Barriers To Barriers
            Moments after Gunter Schaldach’s car vaulted over the first-turn wall and fence Saturday at Road America, back-seat engineers made their voices heard.
            The fence ought to be taller. And stronger, too.
            Pavement. That’s the answer. Every corner needs enough asphalt runoff to slow cars when they leave the track.
            Ah, if only it were that simple.
            “There’s no perfect solution,” said retired road-racing champion Tommy Kendall, who with every step he takes feels the effects of a brutal 20-year-old crash at Watkins Glen.
            “Ideally you’d have the barriers moved back so far that you can’t hit them very hard, but that’s not possible on a lot of courses.
            “People need to understand, too, that we can’t just wave a magic wand and create millions of dollars to fix places.”
            Schaldach’s crash in the Grand-Am race Saturday in Elkhart Lake was a bit of a perfect storm. He couldn’t slow enough to make the 90-degree right-hander, slammed into Joe Foster’s car and then, with the throttle hung open by the crash damage, skated across a 150-foot gravel trap. When he hit the tires protecting a barrier, they launched his car over the fence and down an embankment while Foster spun into the wall.
            Extending the asphalt runoff at Turn 1 halfway to Plymouth might be nice, but as Kendall points out, that’s not feasible, given the hill on which it sits. The area is already much more open than it was when A.J. Foyt stuffed his Indy car into a dirt berm there in 1990.
            But cost and topography are just two factors.
            Other issues to consider include the uniqueness of corners and crashes and the variety of vehicles – motorcycles, go-karts and cars of every shape and size – that are raced on any track.
            “It’s real easy to jump on that (asphalt) bandwagon, but you’ve always got to remember the things that are done have to be done and be somewhat effective for everybody that uses the facility,” said Mark Raffauf, managing director of competition for Grand-Am. “If it was a Skip Barber formula car, it probably would have gone 30 feet and stopped.”
            What’s in place at Road America is in line with industry standards worldwide, he said.
            But something that might help at Turn 1 could cause other problems elsewhere, such as the Kink. In that daunting, high-speed right-hand bend, the guardrail hugs the left side of the track.
            “Yeah, you’re likely to hit the guardrail and ruin your car,” Foster said, “but you’re much less likely to get hurt yourself if you haven’t had an opportunity to develop an acute angle.”
            Then there’s the challenge of a racetrack.
            “If they moved that barrier back 200 yards it’d break my heart,” Kendall said. “That's what makes that Kink special. It scares the hell out of you.”
            There’s also an issue of fairness. When an area beyond the racetrack is paved, there’s less incentive to stay on the actual track.
            “Right now at the Glen you go four wheels wide of the curb and it doesn’t matter; you stay flat on the gas and there is actually no penalty,” said 1997 Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve.
            Each answer presents its own set of questions.
            Is a gravel trap going to necessitate long cleanups that destroy the flow of a race? Is asphalt as effective as gravel for stopping a car that has no tires? Is a tire barrier truly safe if it grabs a car that hits it at an angle and inflicts intense twisting force on the driver? Would water barriers help or just create mud?
            Kendall has suggested sets of old tires, “like a series of blocking sleds” that would slow a car progressively but admits, “I’m sure there’s probably some things I’m not thinking about.”
            The entire discussion leads back to this: What people know about racetrack safety is used as well as it reasonably can be to minimize the problems from the most likely types of crashes. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

What’s New Is Old Again
            When the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger rolled out last year, their fresh lines were heralded as an important step for the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
            The pony cars would help redevelop a unique identity for stock cars’ second division.
            So would a point system that prevented top stars from winning the junior varsity title. Ditto for a second stand-alone road-course event.
            Influence would naturally remain from above, but this would be something other than Sprint Cup Light.
            Ah, well.
            That was fun while it lasted.
            OK, so the cars remain. (Now if only Chevrolet and Toyota would go along for the ride.) So does the championship format that will crown someone who doesn’t have a full-time Cup ride.
            But developments on several fronts this week show how delicate this unique identity can be.
            NASCAR will move its Indianapolis Nationwide stop next year six miles east to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That abandons the quintessential short track, Lucas Oil Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind., a place with great sightlines for fans to watch a good race. (Never mind what it does to cheapen the world's most famous racetrack.)
            “Obviously this is a huge opportunity for the Nationwide Series to go to the Brickyard,” said Kevin Harvick, a Cup driver and Nationwide team owner. “From an owner’s perspective, it’s going to be a lot easier to sell than it was at the other facility.”
            Well, there is that – one weekend’s worth of sponsor money – although it hardly sounds like an even trade.
            Meanwhile, the series appears likely to lose Montreal after a request for government assistance was denied.
            A good argument can be made that if the event can’t stand on its own then it should disappear. That doesn’t change the fact, though, that the only race in Canada is gone, either erased from the schedule entirely or moved to a Cup weekend somewhere.
            The loss would leave Road America, Iowa and Nashville as the only non-companion Nationwide venues. Kentucky had been on that list, but Sprint Cup makes its debut there Saturday.
            “Things change,” Harvick said. “This is no different than any other business; you have to keep up with the times.”
            And while we’re throwing out clichés, let's offer another with a twist: In this case, the more things change, the closer they become to being the same.