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Deb Williams, RacinToday.com

A Long List Spurred Edwards To Fix His Priorities

A NASCAR driver at the height of his career, driving for one of the premier series’ top teams, walked out his house’s back door and headed for a meeting. Sitting on the steps was one of his daughters.

When he asked why she wasn’t riding her bicycle she replied that it was broken. He said if she had told him he would have fixed it. She told him she did ask him to fix it several weeks ago. With that, he turned around, walked back into the house, canceled his meeting and fixed his daughter’s bicycle. It was that moment that led to his decision to step away from full-time racing.

Sound like it might have been Carl Edwards? Well, it wasn’t. It was NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, but I’m sure Edwards can relate. For Yarborough, the year was 1980 and he possessed the most coveted ride in the sport, driving for Junior Johnson, another NASCAR Hall of Fame member. Just two years earlier he had become the first NASCAR competitor to win three consecutive championships in the premier series. There were only 31 races that season and corporate America had just begun its invasion of the sport. Yet, Yarborough’s decision was just as shocking as Edwards’ announcement on Wednesday.

It was evident when Edwards listed his three reasons for stepping away that his family was at the forefront; a family that involves two children who are at ages when they would like to have their father attend their functions.

“I need to take … time right now and devote it to people and things that are important to me; things I’m really passionate about,” said Edwards, who has raced for 20 years. “I can stand here healthy. … I’m aware of the risks. I don’t like how it feels to take the hits that we take, and I’m a sharp guy, and I want to be a sharp guy in 30 years.  So those risks are something that I want to minimize.”

That leads one to believe that the concussion ordeal Dale Earnhardt Jr. experienced last year also played a role in Edwards’ decision. He also has witnessed first-hand the medical issues Joe Gibbs Racing co-chairman J.D. Gibbs faces on a daily basis, apparently the result of concussions he suffered when he played college football. For Edwards, the risks now out-weigh the rewards. And when a race car driver gets to that point, it is time to step out of the car.

A private person, Edwards not only stunned the motorsports world with his decision a month before the season opening Daytona 500, but the emotion he showed during his press conference also was a surprise. When Edwards teared up and had to turn away from the microphone to regain his composure it was evident his decision wasn’t an easy one. It was, however, one he felt he had to make. And altering one’s priorities takes more courage than continuing down the professional path that has become ingrained in one’s life.

Hopefully, however, Edwards will return to NASCAR soon because the sport needs him. He’s classy, well-spoken, honest, a hard worker and possesses an inspirational success story for America’s youth. During his press conference, Edwards said he always listened to his gut. Hopefully, that gut will one day lead Edwards back to racing, but for right now, it’s not where he needs to be. And that’s a decision that must be respected.

Rules Hamstringing Racing in Cup

CONCORD, N.C. – For several years, I have maintained NASCAR has over-regulated the sport and as a result, the racing has suffered. Jimmie Johnson supported my theory Saturday night after the Monster Energy All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The rule book is so thick and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed,” Johnson said after finishing third in the race. “You can’t pass running the same speed.

“The short run when the tires are cool, how the car acts and behaves, two to three laps, it’s where the race is won or lost now. It’s just the environment we’re in. It’s a credit to the garage area being smart, not in a negative sense, but the damn rule book is too thick.”

Johnson believed he was poised to win the event when the 10 drivers who made the cut for the race’s final 10 laps lined up for the restart. Brad Keselowski was leading on old tires due to a rule interpretation. Earlier in the race, Keselowski’s crew had put softer compound tires on his car. He scuffed them, then returned to his pit and exchanged them for the regular compound tire. The team’s intention was to use the softer scuffed tires later in the race. NASCAR ruled that wasn’t allowed; once the tires came off, they couldn’t be used again. That left Keselowski without new tires for the final 10 laps.

Johnson was second with new regular compound tires and lined up on Keselowski’s outside. Kyle Busch, also on new tires, lined up behind Keselowski in third. When the green flag waved, Busch rooted his Toyota under Keselowski and shot into the lead. He was never challenged the rest of the way and easily won his first All-Star race in his 12th start by 1.274 seconds. That’s the most All-Star starts by any driver before finally winning one. The old record was 11 by Tony Stewart. It also was Busch’s first Cup event victory at Charlotte. In giving Toyota its second All-Star victory, Busch became the second Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win the race. Denny Hamlin was the first in 2011.

Kyle Larson, who won the race’s first two stages, passed Johnson, who was the third stage winner, with about two laps remaining to claim second.

The restart was only one of two exciting racing moments Saturday night. The other came in the Open when Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones raced three wide on the frontstretch. Jones daringly tried to pass on the inside of Elliott, who was in the middle, and caught the grassy apron in a move reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt on Elliott’s father, Bill, in the 1987 All-Star race. For a brief moment, the daring exploits that made the All-Star race memorable existed.

Unfortunately, those moments are now far-and-few between and probably for many reasons. Among them are financial reward, the cars’ equality and the track’s size.

When the All-Star race made its debut in 1985 the winner received more money than in any other stock car event. Drivers didn’t receive guaranteed multi-million dollar salaries. Now, it’s more of a “pride” event than one where the financial reward is essential to paying the bills. Today, many teams use it as a test for the Coca-Cola 600 the following weekend.

NASCAR’s regulations have left the teams with little room for gaining an advantage. The teams no longer can choose any gear ratio they want. Instead, NASCAR tells the teams which gears they may choose from. Talented fabricators once crafted a car, working their magic on the sheet metal. Those days are gone. NASCAR also has severely limited what can be done to the cars, placing them in the engineers’ hands.

And then there is the track. When the All-Star race began there were only two 1.5-mile tracks in NASCAR’s premier series and Charlotte’s was a unique design. Atlanta was the other 1.5-mile track, but its design wasn’t the same as it is today. In 1985, Atlanta was comprised of long, sweeping turns and short straightaways. No frontstretch dogleg. Today, there are eight 1.5-mile tracks and those speedways often produce dull, even boring, events.  

When the All-Star race was initially announced at the 1984 awards banquet in New York City, the plan was to rotate it among the tracks. That changed, however, after the 1986 debacle. The All-Star race was scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend at Atlanta. It was a rude awakening for the sport. There were no campers in the infield and one could count the fans in the grandstands. It was immediately shifted back to Charlotte where it has remained.

Larson said he thought the All-Star race should move to a track on the West Coast, but would the event become the fiasco that it was in 1986? The only way to know would be to try it. But can the sport risk such a debacle at this time when NASCAR and track promoters are working desperately to get fans to the track?

Like the teams, NASCAR often uses the All-Star race as a test. Such was the case Saturday with the two different compound tires. The softer tires were an advantage for a brief time, but they didn’t work as officials had hoped in providing more intense racing. Perhaps it’s because an on-track test hadn’t occurred; instead, only simulation work. Clint Bowyer’s team tried what gave Richard Petty his October 1983 Charlotte victory, when softer tires were illegally placed on the car’s right side, thus providing more grip. For Bowyer, however, his legal move didn’t work.

There is no single solution to the problems facing the All-Star race and the sport, but the best place to start would be with deregulation.  

NASCAR Has Lost Engine Builder Extraordinaire

In the 1960s, a Mars Hill College professor saw Robert Yates working on a farmer’s tractor one Sunday afternoon instead of in his dorm room studying. The professor told Yates he would never amount to anything because of his actions.

Time-and-time again Yates proved that professor wrong, establishing a NASCAR career in which he built some of the most powerful and successful engines in the sport.  It was a stellar 40-year profession that earned Yates admittance into the NASCAR Hall of Fame; an honor he learned of in May, a little more than four months before succumbing to liver cancer.

Yates’ racing accomplishments are well documented. He began his career at Holman-Moody Racing in 1968, but didn’t enjoy his first championship as an engine builder until 1983 with DiGard Racing and Bobby Allison. The following year, his company contracted with team owner Mike Curb to provide engines for his driver, Richard Petty. It was a contract that led to Yates providing Petty with the engine that powered him to his historic 200th career victory at Daytona in July 1984.

Yates focused solely on constructing powerful engines until 1989 when he purchased Harry Rainer’s race team. The Charlotte, N.C., native then proceeded to become one of the sport’s most successful team owners, claiming 57 victories, 48 poles and a championship in 1999 with Dale Jarrett as his driver.

Yates’ life, however, was so much more than statistics. The son of a Southern Baptist minister, a twin and the youngest of nine children, Yates was a devout family man who adored his wife, Carolyn. For many years, Valentine’s Day occurred in the middle of Speedweeks. Those with loved ones involved in the sport knew it was a holiday that was relegated to the backburner until after the Daytona 500. Not with Yates. One year he treated his wife to a Valentine’s Day dinner at a fine French restaurant in Ormond Beach, Fla.

A quite, modest and sincere man, Yates was proud of his children and delighted in the fact that his son, Doug, elected to follow in his engine-building footsteps. Yates was sensitive to people’s feelings and often worried more than one might expect for someone in racing. Perhaps that’s because he was complex and always considered all of the answers that could exist to a single question.

His decision to become a team owner was a gut-wrenching one, but it was Ranier’s young driver – 27-year-old Davey Allison – who convinced the organization’s engine builder he could do it.

In his first season as a team owner, the Yates-Allison duo emerged with two victories. Two more victories came in 1990. Then the team broke out as one of the sport’s powerhouses, capturing five victories in each of the next two seasons. Those victories included the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the All-Star race. There was an intense battle for the 1992 championship before Allison’s title run ended with a multi-car crash in the season finale at Atlanta.

With the 1993 season came several years of heartache for Yates. Allison died July 13 from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash a day earlier at Talladega. Yates’ team skipped the next race; then returned with three different drivers for the rest of the season. Ernie Irvan eventually became his full-time driver and in 1994 the team once again found itself in a championship battle. But everything changed on a foggy morning in Michigan during the first practice. A crash left Irvan in a coma with a severe head injury. Not yet recovered from Allison’s death, Yates, again, found himself in emotional turmoil and with a substitute driver for the season’s remainder.

Yates rebounded in 1995 when Jarrett joined his operation and Irvan made a miraculous return late that season. The stage was now set for Yates to become a two-car team, which it remained for several years.

Throughout the years as an engine builder and team owner, Yates remained an innovator. He could fit the power curve of an engine to a competitor’s driving style and a car’s handling characteristics. Former crew chief Gary Nelson once said Yates understood the importance of that in an engine “better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Yates was admired and respected by everyone involved in the sport as well as the fans and the media. He was a man who cherished his family and possessed a passion for engines and racing; a person who made a difference in many people’s lives. And a man who will be missed, but never forgotten.