Monday, October 18, 2010

NASCAR's Battle at the Back

~You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it. ~ Margaret Thatcher

At the front of the field lies fame and fortune. At the back lies heartbreak and broken dreams.

The last 10 races of the NASCAR season are called "The Chase." The top 12 drivers are put into a special points segment and race for the coveted NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. With that Championship comes trophies, accolades, and the bragging rights of the drivers, the teams, the sponsors and their fans.

There is another race happening at the back of the field. Several team owners are competing for the goal of Top 35 in Owner's Points. The Top 35 is required if an owner wants to insure that their cars will make the race, even if they have issues during qualifying. Those teams are not racing just for that guaranteed spot, but are also racing for their futures.

On the back side of the garage, away from the media spotlight, there is an air of desperation for four teams trying to end the year on a positive note. A top 35 spot gives a team something to present to potential sponsors, to sell the primary advertising on their cars. A potential sponsor wants to know their dollars will give a return, and a guaranteed spot in the race is valued. The teams that are the 'contenders' for the Top 35 all appear to walk a very narrow path, one that may provide a reward at the end, but where one misstep can lead to a disastrous fall.

Latitude 43 Motorsports - Bill Jenkins purchased the #26 team from Roush Fenway Racing, when that organization was forced to drop one team by NASCAR. With that purchase came Top 35 owners points, and a 'technical alliance.' For a first year team, Latitude 43 showed moderate results, with finishes that SHOULD have kept them in the Top 35. Their Achilles Heel has been in qualifying, as the team failed to make the field in 8 races. There have been multiple driver changes: Boris Said, David Stremme, Jeff Green, Patrick Carpentier. Kenny Schrader is set to drive at Martinsville. At 177 points away from the Top 35, their hopes are diminishing for a recovery.

Front Row Motorsports - Bob Jenkins (not related to the above Bill Jenkins) is a restaurant entrepreneur who first brought teams to NASCAR in 2005. While never a front runner, he has shown a commitment to the sport by not resorting to the dreaded 'Start and Park' practice, even though it would be less costly than running full races. In 2010, Jenkins had a commitment with driver Travis Kvapil when he was approached by Kevin Conway and sponsor Biotab Nutraceuticals. Conway and the Biotab product ExtenZe wanted to make a run for Rookie of the Year, and according to sources, required that Conway remain in the Top 35. Front Row Motorsports agreed, and hired David Gilliland to be driver of the 3rd team, an arrangement made solely to support the Rookie title run by Conway.

After Bristol, Conway's points dropped within 9 points of falling out of the Top 35, and he changed to another FRM car. His car number was changed two more times to keep him as a locked-in driver. Disaster struck for the team after the first Pocono race, when the 38 team was assessed a fine of 150 points for illegal parts. This fine dropped them from the Top 35 into 37th. After Michigan, the team severed their contract with Kevin Conway, citing a lack of money owed, resulting in a lawsuit that has yet to be resolved.

Front Row has since brought in Tony Raines and Dave Blaney to drive the third car, while having primary drivers Gilliland and Kvapil take part in qualifying the 38. Several steady finishes have closed the gap considerably. The 38 has gained 139 points on the Top 35 since Bristol, and is now only 5 points away from the #7 car of Robby Gordon Motorsports.

Robby Gordon Motorsports - Robby Gordon has been cited as being one of the last of the owners/drivers in NASCAR. Known for his fiery temper, Robby has divided his passions into running a variety of races in both Off-road, Indy and NASCAR, and hoped to compete in Monster trucks. At the beginning of the year, Robby spoke with pride on how his team was building some of the finest of cars. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, mainly at road courses, that pride has not shown equal results on the track, with Robby's season needing his Top 35 spot to be able to race in 2 of the first 3 races. As the year progresses, Robby was outspoken on how Front Row Motorsports was moving their drivers around to help Kevin Conway, and he allowed his sponsor,, to post an unflattering video of the (then) RGM crew chief Gene Nead's opinion of the "Stiffiemobile" efforts. Robby has other commitments for certain races, and brought in PJ Jones and Bobby Labonte to fill the seat.

When Conway was released from FRM, Robby and Kevin partnered, and Conway proceeded to drive the 7 car. In six races, Conway had four "Start & Parks" and a blown engine. Robby stepped back into the 7, but was unable to catch or pass the 38. There has been a free-fall of 139 points to FRM since Bristol. There were hopes that RGM would catch the 34th place spot from TRG Motorsports, but has only gained a spot each in the last few races. The 7 is now 5 points ahead of FRM in the 35th spot, and 15 points behind TRG.

TRG Motorsports - Owner Kevin Buckler is in his second year of NASCAR Cup ownership. Placing hope that popular past champion Bobby Labonte would be able to pull in the sponsors, Buckler committed to running full races with Labonte. By Dover, the funding was getting sparse, and Buckler had to renege on the promise, starting the "Start and Park" dance. Labonte has since moved to the 09 car of James Finch for the majority of the races, with the 71 being filled in by Mike Bliss, Landon Cassill, Tony Raines and Andy Lally. Hermie Sadler is slated to drive for TRG at Martinsville. The 71 is currently 15 points ahead of the 7, and 20 points ahead of the 38.

With few exceptions, there is very little media coverage for these teams. (One notable exception is Brock Beard's weekly Bubble Breakdown from The Both MRN & PRN radio reduced their qualifying coverage for races, a point where most drivers were interviewed. A television interview with any of the so called Bubble Teams is rare, and quite often their qualifying runs are reduced to a mention after a commercial break. Most of these cars get few mentions during a race, leaving their fans to surf the internet to discover information.

Every week, these underfunded teams plan their battles, hoping to end the year with a Top 35 banner. When they complete one battle, the plans for the next start immediately. For them, it IS war. It is also survival.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Back to Racing at Fontana!

I have received emails asking why I am no longer blogging. For the last few years, I have been primary caretaker for my mother, an Alzheimer's patient. In the last year, we were forced to make several decisions to help her during her final days, and my priority was to take care of her. She passed last May, and while my interest in NASCAR has never faltered, it has taken me some time to get the energy to blog again.

This has been a good week for my return to the Blogoshere! The Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway, in Fontana California, was a bit of a shocker! It was quite simply fantastic racing! This race was shortened from 500 to 400 miles, and it appears to have created race strategy that involved hustling for position, rather than riding around until the final parts of the race. With the advent of the Speedway losing one race in 2011, it is hopeful that the improved racing will help the fans return to the stands in March.

Sophomore team Stewart Hass Racing owner/driver Tony Stewart celebrated his return to Victory Lane! Jumping from 10th to 5th in the Chase, and team mate Ryan Newman's fifth place finish, is happening at a fabulous time for SHR, as they will be having an announcement this week, with rumors stating that it might be a sponsor deal with Mobil One.

Roush Fenway Racing had a very tough race. Greg Biffle's run ended early with a blown engine, and Carl Edward's car suffered from a malfunctioning distributor. Matt Kenseth had an engine trying to blow up, and David Ragan was involved in a crash with Kurt Busch.

Hendrick Motor Sports still has the 48 team with Jimmie Johnson leading the pack. When Jimmie and his Crew Chief Chad Knause get going, it is virtually impossible to stop the Juggernaut.

Richard Childress Racing watched as the beleaguered Clint Bowyer team finished second. In addition to the strong point penalty, Bowyer's team had a scare when Crew Chief Todd Berrier went to the hospital to be checked out for dizziness. Todd did make it back to the race in time to take over on the pit box.

Team mates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya had strong qualfying efforts, but Montoya scraped the wall early, and Jamie fell back during the race. They still both finished Top 20.

Down at the bottom of the field, Front Row Motorsports made very strong gains towards regaining a Top 35 Owner's points spot. Chasing Robby Gordon Motorsports, who is using the 2010 lone ROTY contender Kevin Conway in the #7 car, David Gilliland piloted the #38 Taco Bell car to a 20th place finish. Using old generation chassis, and underpowered engines, FRM was heard to be hustling and scrounging tires from other teams to give David a chance to gain spots on the last 2 laps bonzai run.

On a sad note, USAC driver Shane Hmiel suffered life-threatening injuries while qualifying in Terra Haute, Indiana. Our thoughts and prayers go to him, and to his family and friends as Shane goes through surgery and recovery. To follow his progress, use the Shane Hmiel - Road to Recovery Facebook page.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Post Atlanta Observations, with a Dash of Unintended Consequences

It has been a long off-season from NASCAR for me! I spent the majority of it moving my family from Vegas to Iowa, and trying to acclimate myself to a new environment. Yes, there was indeed some 'culture shock' in the move. I am not loving the snow, but I am loving the countryside and the pace of life here!

I found some highlights during the off season though! The most exciting for me was that David Gilliland found a ride with Front Row Motorsports. While he is once again with a team that is underfunded, I feel confident that David will continue to provide value for his efforts.

Apparently, Charter Air Transport also found value in David, as they were once again an associate sponsor on David's #38 car at Atlanta. Paul Kahalley from Charter 'has a past' in NASCAR, and it is great to see a driver who makes enough of an impression with a sponsor to bring them back into a sport.

Since I already had purchased my 2010 tickets for the Las Vegas Motor Speedway race, my family and I returned to Vegas to attend the race, this time as tourists. I have photos and observations in blogs later this week. We had a marvelous time, but I haven't been able to catch up to the world of NASCAR until this week.

Just when we thought NASCAR was going to shape up into another boring season, we have some great material. The NASCAR race at Atlanta, the Kobalt Tools 500, is one with enough fuel to "light up" NASCAR fans through a long off-week.

For me, the race brought excitement in seeing David Gilliland running so well with many fully funded teams, and after only the third race with his new organization. Sadly he was caught up in a wreck when Jamie McMurray got loose, and indeed was hit by Jamie. The damage to the right front of the car also knocked out 'the toe' and left them having to return to the track on their last set of tires, which were scuffs. He was going for a top 15 finish, but ended at 26th. This is a true case of racing not being a reflected in the finishing position.

It seems that tires were an issue, but not for everyone. It appeared that cars that were impacted were mostly from the Hendrick stable. My bet is that they had something in their set-up that caused the tires to blow. However, it did make it pretty predictable, that around 30 to 35 laps would be the point where a new caution would come out.

Chad Knause, from the #48 Championship team, thought life was going to be good for them on pit road, when he found out Gilliland was pitting in front of him. Sadly for Knause, Gilly did not fall off the lead lap, and Chad was vocal in his complaints that David was in their way. The #9 team of Kasey Kahne was also giving the #48 fits, as they were pitting too close to the front of the pit box, thereby making the 48 challenges even more difficult. David and his crew chief, Randy Seals, did everything they could to stay out of their way, and went so far as to stay out several times while the other cars where on the lead lap, and still could not satisfy the Champ's team. Finally, according to the scanner chatter, Randy basically said that the 48 team was going to have to live with it. They had already pulled so far to the front of their pit box that David had to be backed up. It was no longer worth the effort of keeping the other team quiet.

The incident creating the most noise from Atlanta, however, was the Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski wreck.

The internet/twitter buzz on the evening of the incident was mostly from those who wanted to hang Carl for his transgressions, or at least suspend him for a year. Some blame the wing for the flying car, but we have to remember that cars with spoilers also 'took air.' Others think that the 'have at it' policy is to blame. But when NASCAR announced the 'have at it' policy, Mike Helton also said "It doesn't mean these guys have a get-out-of-jail-free card." I would expect that there will be some sanctions against Edwards, but not enough to take him out of the car.

I do have to note that David Gilliland's wreck probably would not have happened if it had not been for the CE/BK wreck. But I also have to keep in mind that Brad has made some enemies in the past, and I also have sympathy for Carl, as fans of Gilliland are all too aware of this type of situation.

And finally, I have to note that I had a 'discussion' with another blogger/tweeter last night, that left the other blogger requesting that I unfollow him. I did so, but was surprised this morning to receive several notes from friends that the other blogger had posted selective parts of our conversation on his blog. The result was that I received a profanity-laced comment on a press release I wrote for a sponsor. That was not the proper place to post the response, but if that same 'anonymous' person would care to post the same response here, I will be glad to publish it, to show the quality of fans who jumped to defense of the other blogger.
Finally, I do have to thank that other blogger. Just like Carl Edwards did not anticipate the unintended consequences of his actions, the other blogger drove more traffic to my site, along with many positive emails. I am pretty sure that was not his intent! Thank you, JD!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

David Gilliland: Welcome Back, Charter!

NASCAR fans are notorious for the zeal and dedication in following their drivers and their sport. One fan of David Gilliland, though, has combined his passion for the sport with his business. Paul Kahalley, director of Jet Charter Sales for Charter Air Transport, has networked his business and sports relationships into a viable business entity.

I first wrote about Paul last year, when Charter Air Transport agreed to fly David and Michelle Gilliland to Dover for the spring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Since then, the relationship continued to grow. Front Row Motorsports with Doug Yates Racing was researching travel costs for the 2010 season, having added two new cars and teams to their operation. Gilliland was able to personally vouch for the quality of Charter Air Transport. Front Row Motorsports and Charter Air Transport reached an agreement, making C.A.T the Official Air Carrier of FRM. The FRM team will use Charter Air for 23 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 2010.

Kahalley states "All of us at Charter Air Transport are excited about our partnership with Front Row Motorsports with Yates Racing. We have been flying NASCAR teams for the last few years, and it is such a perfect fit for our 30 passenger aircraft. At the same time, we are moving these large groups in a safe and cost effective way. FRM recognized this, and reached out to us, and we are very appreciative of the opportunity. We had the pleasure of flying David Gilliland last season, and it is truly an honor to have our logo on the side of the #38 Charter Air Transport/Taco Bell Ford at Atlanta."

Paul reports that Charter Air Transport's fleet of EMB-120 turbo props are configured for 30 passengers and boast an environmentally friendly mode of transportation by only burning 150 gallons of fuel per hour, compared to 450 gallons per hour on other aircraft configured for 30-50 passenger lifts. Their services include charters for various sports teams, casino junkets, vacations, and managed aircraft revenue opportunities. They are very proud of their safe, reliable, outstanding service with an impeccable 'on-time' performance.

David Gilliland welcomes the return of Charter Air Transport. " It's nice to see Charter Air Transport on the car this weekend. I've flown on their planes in the past and they are a great way to travel. They have helped us out already in the early going. It's always nice not to have to worry about travel and how you are getting from one track to the next. They do a great job."

FRM will display the Charter Air Transport logo on the #38 Sprint cup car, on the rear quarter panels and front of the hood, This paint scheme will be used March 7, 2010 at the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speeway.

Welcome back, Charter!