Back to the Bricks

 

The economy -- among other things -- has finally hit motor racing's titan, NASCAR. Attendance and TV ratings are double-digit down, with both Fox and TNT reporting an 11 percent decrease in viewers and ticket sales off as much as 12 percent at some tracks.

Because fans aren't watching, sponsors aren't paying, creating a vicious downward spiral. Due to its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, General Motors reduced support, and Chrysler, restructuring Dodge as it emerges from bankruptcy, cut back on funding for Dodge teams. Richard Childress acknowledged less factory support and Richard Petty Motorsports, despite a merger with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and its first victory in 10 years with Kase Khane's win on the road course at Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, was forced to cut salaries and staff. Small teams are running limited seasons due to budget cuts and other teams like Petty's are merging to survive -- the 1,000 team members laid off since the end of last season are finding it tough going.

Things aren't much happier in the stands. There's a perception that the once-approachable drivers aren't so easy to access any more ... and aren't as much fun to watch. One fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., languishes at the back of the field. Some blame the Car of Tomorrow for limiting passing and dulling the action on the track. Others point to longer races frequently interrupted by yellow flags.

It's easy to understand Indianapolis' disenchantment with the sport after last year's yellow-infused excuse for a race hindered by the wrong tire compound. Jeff Gordon, driver of the Dupont-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet, guarantees there will be no repeat at the 2009 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday, July 26. "I will guarantee it. I'm 100 percent confident. I ran this tire as hard as I possibly could, put numerous laps on them. It's a dead issue. I can promise all the fans out there that if they want to come to the Brickyard and see a great race, the tires are not going to be an issue. It might come down to a lot of different factors -- fastest car, fuel mileage, track position, a double-file restart with 10 to go -- but it's not going to come down to a 10-lap shootout on whose tires can last."

Another tire test participant, Tony Stewart, is confident there won't be any tire issues at this year's Brickyard, but won't go as far as a guarantee. "We were able to run almost 30 laps and still not even be down to the cords, so I'm very confident that there shouldn't be any issues at all. You obviously can't guarantee that, but I can tell you that they've got a tire that will be just fine when we come back here."

Tire-d of excuses

After the 2008 debacle, Goodyear initiated a series of seven tests. Greg Stucker, Goodyear director of racing tires sales, says more than 20 different formulas have been tested on track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in house at the company's Akron, Ohio, track, which the tire manufacturer had partially diamond-ground to replicate the smooth, level IMS surface. "We wanted to make sure that we got it right, make sure that we basically left no stone unturned."

To ensure stones are turning, Goodyear racked up 13,000 miles of testing with 30 drivers. In addition, researchers developed methods to measure tread wear and wear debris. "We've developed ways to actually measure the track surface, and we've done that at every test that we've had here. We actually have equipment that measures the racetrack at the very microscopic level, so we understand exactly what happens and maybe what doesn't happen when we rubber in and don't rubber in the racetrack, so try to understand exactly what takes place. It's been No. 1 priority for the last 11 months. And again, I think we got it right."

Participating test drivers agree. Kasey Kahne, Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 Budweiser Dodge, reports little wear or overheating problems. "I feel like it's a really good tire. It's going to be a great race because the tire is better than it's been."

Kurt Busch, Penske Racing No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, calls the new tire "night-and-day different," adding that "We were just amazed at how different the tire feels."

One of the reasons it feels different is that, as Busch explains, it has a chemical in it that's laying down rubber that provides more grip for the cars. "It feels sticky when you're cleaning it off the race car." Gordon was impressed with the amount of rubber left on the track after testing and how the tires wear. "This track is extremely abrasive. This car wears tires more. There are a lot of things that contributed to what happened [last year]. This track is unique to any other track we go to, not only the shape and size of this track but the abrasiveness in the surface is unique to any other track that we go to. And it is the most challenging racetrack."

Busch endured numerous "competition cautions" last year and says, "The ability to make more than 10 laps [in the 16th Allstate 400 at the Brickyard] will be refreshing. The fact that last year [we were] sliding around, not knowing which tire was going to let go first, was definitely very frustrating."

Previously very vocal in his criticism of Goodyear, after his visit to the factory in Akron and the Indy tire test, Stewart applauds the efforts of the manufacturer. "I think they've come back with a combination that not only is durable, but also made where it should be better racing. I can promise you they have put a full-court press on making sure we don't have the issues that we had last year."

'Retirement' suits Mark Martin

Once semi-retired, the 50-year-old Mark Martin is having the full-time season of a lifetime. Off to a rough start through the first four races, he clung tenaciously to a top-35 position, guaranteeing a starting spot on the grid each week. But Martin served notice to the doubters that he could handle the competition by reeling off a string of top-20 finishes and racking up three wins -- including an impressive victory at Michigan International Speedway, where he demonstrated a new maturity in fuel conservation -- with his new team, Hendrick Motorsports.

Credit for his newfound success in the Carquest/Kellogg's No. 5 Chevy can be split between the relationship with his crew chief Alan Gustafson and his own personal determination. His legendary physical workout regime is widely credited for his longevity and fitness level, but his mental tenacity equals his physical endurance. Several years ago, XM Satellite Radio's Claire B Lang asked Martin if he felt confident about his performance. He retorted that "confidence is an emotion ... and I don't deal in emotions." He went on to point out that it was more accurate to characterize him as "determined."

Semantics aside, Martin's determination has carried him through lackluster seasons with declining results and now seems to be propelling him back up to the top of his game -- and the points standings, where he has been tied for the lead at one point in the season. Whether this nice guy finds victory at the Brickyard or finishes last, Mark Martin is this season's runaway feel-good story and a potential threat week in, week out.

Dale's downturn

The law of physics dictates that if someone's up, someone has to be down. This year, it's Dale Earnhardt Jr. Just as Martin has gelled with his crew, teammate Earnhardt hasn't. In fact, Hendrick replaced Earnhardt's cousin and longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr. in late May because of poor results. The driver of the No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard-sponsored Chevrolet hasn't won since ending a 76-race winless streak at Michigan a year ago and has been in the top five only once this season.

New crew chief Lance McGrew fits the Hendrick template: cerebral, technical and cool under pressure. And, as part of the Hendrick machine, Jr. can rely on shared setups, notes and engineering data. Following the "team first" model, he can also count on advice from teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin. Once he adjusts to his new support network, Earnhardt may inch from oblivion at the back of the field toward the other end of the spectrum up front.

"I feel confidence," Earnhardt said at Michigan, in his third week under the guidance of crew chief Lance McGrew. "Lance is doing a great job. All of the other guys on the road crew have stepped up and what that means to me is when I come in here, I can see the different disposition on everyone's face."

Whether that confidence can translate to a good finish at the challenging Indianapolis track where hard charging is rewarded remains to be seen. Earnhardt has a tough challenge ahead of him to make reality match expectation and distractions like Kyle Busch's public pot shots against him don't help -- especially since Busch, NASCAR's bad boy and the man he replaced at Hendrick, is having as much fun beating him as he is taunting him.

The rest of the Hendrick stable

Jeff Gordon, popular former Indiana resident and four-time winner of the Brickyard, is back. He's back at the front with five top fives in the first seven races, a threat to win every week -- which he did recently at Texas Motor Speedway. But it's his back that may end his career.

Chronic back problems have sent him chasing solutions like other drivers chase the Cup. An MRI indicated arthritis and long-term back issues, possibly stemming from trauma in a previous crash. Acknowledging that he may have waited too long to address the issue, the 37-year-old driver competed in pain throughout a winless 2008 -- his first season sans victory since he was a rookie 16 years ago.

Injections of anti-inflammatory medications and a new fitness program haven't helped ease the pain. "I'm in the best shape I can ever remember being in," Gordon reflects, "but of all the things I had been doing -- the stretches, the workouts -- none of those things were making my back any better." Lumbar supports in the seat of his No. 24 Dupont Chevy aren't working either. The pain hasn't subsided and he often suffers back spasms.

He doesn't expect the discomfort to subside. "If my back was the way it was at Bristol, it's definitely going to shorten my career. I can't race like that." Gordon claims his pain increases on short tracks like Bristol and road courses when there's extra strain and more braking. Longer tracks don't put the same strain on him, which bodes well for his chances at IMS.

If Gordon doesn't win, perhaps the heir-apparent will. Jimmie Johnson, in the Gordon-owned Hendrick Motorsport Lowe's Chevrolet No. 48, appears headed for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title. Performing like a well-oiled machine, Johnson and unflappable crew chief Chad Knaus rarely miss on technical calculations and calculated risks. Only fuel mileage seems to hold them down in the points chase.

In the lead on the final lap at Michigan, Johnson ran out of fuel ... just like he did at the other big oval, Pocono, a few weeks ago. Accepting the blame for running hard and burning up fuel, he said, "We'll just have to take our lumps and go on. We really have to look at the bright side of things and how strong we were, how many laps we led and how fast we were. We'll be fine."

After becoming only the second driver in NASCAR history to rack up three consecutive Cup championships, Johnson has confidence in his crew's talent, discipline and consistency. A former Brickyard winner, he's a top contender again.

Smoke and mirrors

Another local favorite, Tony Stewart, isn't looking in his mirrors at the competition behind him. In the story of the season, the moody Hoosier resurrected an uncompetitive team and became the first owner-driver to win (at Pocono) since Ricky Rudd in September 1998, vaulting him atop the points standings. "It's just about enjoying the moment," Stewart said after his victory, although early success has already led him to look ahead to expanding to a three-car operation.

Stewart hopes to enjoy another winning moment at the Brickyard. "It's always been a dream to win in Indianapolis, and I've been very blessed and fortunate to win it twice now. But it would be that much more special to win it as a team owner. It's been so much fun working with this group of guys, I think it would mean just as much to be the winning car owner for Ryan [Newman] as it would be for me to win it as a driver and owner.

"Obviously," he continues, "special races like the Brickyard and Daytona 500 and Indy 500 are marquee events that mean more, but a win is a win!" A win at Indy would again place him behind Rudd in the owner/driver/winner category here (1997) and if he manages to maintain the momentum throughout the season, he could become the first owner/driver to win the championship since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Stewart, in the No. 14 Office Depot Chevy he co-owns with Carl Haas, started the season strong with an eighth place finish at Daytona, and only twice finished out of the top 20 during the first half of the season. Currently leading the points standings, he has learned to control his temper -- at least for now, while things are going well -- and leverage his star power. He's comfortable in the car and it shows.

He's also comfortable in the role of team owner. In fairness, the role isn't new to him. Owner of Eldora Speedway, part owner of the Paducah, Ky., track and another in Macon, Ill., as well as two World of Outlaw teams and two USAC operations has given the Hoosier a strong base of experience. "It's the same challenges," he says. "It's just a different scale. It's not all totally new to us, but just the size of it is really the new factor."

A strategic alliance with the Hendrick organization has helped with team structure and focus. Taking a page from his former boss Joe Gibbs, "Smoke" brought good people to Stewart-Haas, from crew chief Darian Grubb to key shop personnel and established strong relationships. Stewart learned the lesson of removing his ego from the picture and figured out the formula for making it all about the team, insisting he's "just one of the guys on the team."

A former two-time Brickyard winner with an admitted love of the Speedway, Stewart could be hard to beat at his favorite track -- and if he is beaten, he's always good for a tantrum or a memorable quote, which is almost as entertaining.

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