NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2014 Daytona 500 champion, made his first ever trip to Austin on Tuesday afternoon and said motorsports fans, especially in the states, should focus on NASCAR and not Formula 1.  

“I’m here to tell people that they need to come to see us race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We put on a better show and that, you know, as exciting as it is to have Formula 1 be in America, come to America, and be back in the United States … NASCAR is where it’s at. It’s the best motorsports in the country for sure, possibly in the world, and to see the best show they need to come to Texas.”

Earnhardt Jr., who got his first career victory at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000, visited Sholz Garten for a meet and greet with fans to promote the upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in April. The race at TMS in November overlaps with the F1 race at the Circuit of the Americas.

“I absolutely think it’s foolish,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said of the scheduling conflict. “Nobody wins.”

The now two-time Daytona 500 winner has partaken in a whirlwind media and press tour since winning NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl Sunday, appearing on The David Letterman Show on Monday evening and visiting ESPN headquarters Tuesday morning before flying to Austin. Comparisons of his victory in 2004 keep coming up for Earnhardt Jr. 

“I thought about that when I first came into the series, how long would I be chasing the Daytona 500," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Would it be eluding me like it did these other guys or would I never win it? And so when I won it early, it was a huge shock and the feeling that I had wasn’t really joy, it was more relief that I had that put out of the way. “

NASCAR’s most popular driver, who has won the award for 11 straight seasons, also joined Twitter after winning the race. He had an account for several years with over 200,000 followers despite zero tweets being sent out. Now, only two days after winning the race, he sits at over 500,000 followers.

“Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to join Twitter,” Earnhardt Jr. tweeted early Monday morning. “How is everyone doin? #2XDaytona500Champ.”

The introduction of new rules for the 2014 NASCAR season means nothing without the drivers and teams who will have to comply with them.

Among those drivers are Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, two stars who missed extended time last season and as a result lost out on their championship prospects.

They enter this season with the expectation of running the full schedule.

Hamlin appears ready heading into Saturday night’s exhibition race, the Sprint Unlimited. The 33-year-old native from Virginia missed four races after he sustained a back injury from an on-course clash with Joey Logano. He never recovered in the standings and missed the Chase.  

But a win in the season finale at Homestead created a bit of momentum for the number 11 team as they prepare for 2014.

He should make the Chase this year. He has the championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb and talent to do it. He excels at most tracks and can easily win five-plus races any given season.

Stewart on the other hand, has more of challenge. He broke his leg in early August in a sprint car crash. Unable to drive, he missed 15 races.

His decision to compete in a racing series not as safe as NASCAR received mixed reaction from people. He co-owns the organization he races for and opposition to his dirt track endeavors believed that he was not taking his responsibility as an owner seriously.

Not only will Stewart have to deal with his return to the track, he will also have to be wise about how he spends time away from the series. Another unfortunate incident like last summer’s injury would not only keep Stewart off the track, but it would prevent a legitimate championship contender from giving six-time Chase winner Jimmie Johnson some more competition.

Stewart said that his injured leg is around 65 percent healed so everyone will see how he performs at practice Friday and at the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday.

If the injury bug stays away from these two, they could get the chance to experience the new Chase system that awaits all who make it.

Consistency is no longer as important as winning.

On Thursday NASCAR updated its format to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Three key changes highlight the new system.

In an attempt to reward winning in the first 26 races of the season, NASCAR decided that any driver who wins during the regular season will gain entrance to the Chase. That means that a driver who competes in only one race and wins that race can make the postseason. Also, a driver could potentially miss the playoffs if they are fifth in points but without a win.

The Chase field expanded from 12 drivers to 16. With a plethora of drivers capable of winning races the playoff limit needed to increase. Last season 13 drivers won at least once in the first 26 races. Under this new format Brian Vickers, who was 71st in the standings with one win in 12 races, would have made the Chase.

The Chase itself has been broken down into four rounds: Challenger (races No. 27-29), Contender (No. 30-32), Eliminator (No. 33-35), and NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (race No. 36). Each of the first three segments will eliminate four drivers. The final race of the season at Homestead will decide the champion. And it is simple. The first of the four remaining drivers in the Chase to cross the finish line wins the championship.

A win in one round guarantees a driver a spot in the next.

The changes were made to provide a more exciting brand of racing for fans to see and a simpler standings format.

"We now have a system that makes every race matter more,” NASCAR CEO Brian France said, “it will promote compelling competition for wins all season long, and ultimately it will reward a very worthy champion at the end of each season with a best-of-the-best, winner-take-all showdown.”

One problem with the changes is that there is still a possibility of cars not part of the Chase having an influence in the standings. It would have been ideal to award the highest finishing Chase driver 16 points, on down to the last Chase finisher with one. That keeps the standings even closer and still puts an emphasis on outracing the competition. 

The new format overall looks like it should make drivers and teams worry more about winning and finishing ahead of the competition, especially during the regular season, instead of just points racing (staying out of trouble while finishing near the front).

Decisions on pit road will be more interesting within the closing laps. Under a late-flag caution some underfunded single-car team may forego pitting and put itself at the front and in position to win, thus guaranteeing a Chase spot.

In 2011, 15 drivers won in the first 26 races, the most in the last four seasons.

With a premium on winning, keep an eye on that number as the 2014 season unfolds. 

NASCAR should refrain from making political statements by which sponsors it chooses

NASCAR plans to reevaluate its involvement in deciding race sponsors, following the controversy that shrouded last weekend’s NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.  But I argue, however, that NASCAR should be hands-off when it comes to sponsorships.

Firstly, the NRA was a good fit for the Texas race – the winner shoots guns in victory lane. When asked about it, reigning most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. started talking about the guns he owns and his love for hunting. Track president Eddie Gossage said there were fewer than two dozen complaints sent to the track about the sponsorship.

And while the unfortunate death in the infield was caused by a gunshot, it was in no way connected to the name attached to advertisements. It’s not like the NRA passed out guns to race attendees as they entered the track. An advertisement is an advertisement – not a direct command to buy or advocate for that specific sponsor. NASCAR may want to have more control in approving sponsorship deals, but it won’t have any way to control how fans view each sponsor and interpret ads.   

I’ve never owned or shot a gun, and I am aware of the political controversy that surrounds gun control. However, I also believe that NASCAR needs to stay out of any political fracas. Keep NASCAR as the relatively good officiating body that it is. If sponsors have the money and want to brand a race, let them. A soda company? Auto parts? Beer? Guns? It’s business...not the Senate floor.

NASCAR: Three things to watch

NASCAR Sprint Cup racing resumes action this weekend at Martinsville, and here are three things to watch out for after the off week.

1. How will Mark Martin and Brian Vickers fare in Denny Hamlin's ride while he recovers from a back injury sustained in a last-lap crash at California with Joey Logano? Will he be able to make the Chase when he returns? And is the feud between Hamlin and Logano over? Reports say the two texted each other, but there weren't too many positive feelings after the phone words were exchanged. 

2. Expect racing and off-track action to remain competitive and drama-filled. NASCAR seems to have calmed down in regards to racing hard and drivers' emotions - as evidenced by not fining Tony Stewart for his brawl with Logano or expletive-filled postrace interview. It's good news for the fans, who are seeing good races so far with the new Gen-6 car. 

3. It's all about the points. Keep an eye on veteran drivers outside of the top 10 in points. Jeff Gordon and Stewart are among those looking to break into safe Chase territory, and could use a win soon to vault them outside of the bubble zone. Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are off to surprisingly strong starts, and currently sit at eighth and 12th in the points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski, first and second in the points, are both still looking for their first victory of the season. 
 

Don't think NASCAR is a sport? Think again

Just because catching a ball isn’t involved in racing doesn’t mean NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes. Here are a few reasons why NASCAR is a sport:

Pit crew members and NASCAR officials lining up to congratulate Dale Earnhardt Sr. on his 1998 Daytona 500 victory exemplifies sportsmanship.

The athleticism and mental acuity required is absurd. Could you drive for 500 miles at 200 mph, inches from other cars and walls, with two to three G-forces on you in every turn? And have the temperature of the inside of your car be about 120 degrees?

Just because there is only one driver in each car doesn’t mean there aren’t teams. Good races start with engineers in each shop and go all the way to the pit crews – who change four tires, fill up the car with fuel and make handling adjustments in 16 seconds or so. Precision and communication are key. Teams are what win races, not drivers.

Sports today are about business, and NASCAR is a huge one. It has 75 million fans. Each race can draw crowds of 200,000 to the track. A 2012 Forbes article said NASCAR gets about $3 billion year in sponsorship money, which is twice what the NFL earns.

All of the traditions. A sport steeped in running moonshine, NASCAR has a rich history that it still observes. It’s a modern sport, but it respects its history. “Gentlemen, start your engines,” burnouts, victory lane celebrations, Speedweeks, kissing the bricks in Indy. It goes on and on.

The excitement alone is enough of a reason to view NASCAR as a sport. Take last weekend’s race in California as an example. There was a last-lap crash between the first and second place drivers and then there was a brawl on pit road, followed by an angry Tony Stewart rant to the media. Drama is forever present in this sport.

NASCAR: Five Sprint Cup Series drivers to watch this season

With two races already completed, here’s a quick look at five drivers to watch in the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season.

Jimmie Johnson

It wouldn’t be wise to count out the five-time champion. He’s looking for his “six-pack,” and his Daytona 500 victory was a good start to getting it. Johnson had a shot a victory lane last weekend in Phoenix as well, finishing second. He’s currently the leader in points, and a smart early-season pick for the championship.

Brad Keselowski

The defending Sprint Cup champion is off to a strong start, with back-to-back fourth place finishes in the first two races of the season. The Penske Racing organization switched from Dodge to Ford this season, a move Roger Penske said he did to keep his teams competitive. So far, Keselowski seems to be fairing alright.

Kevin Harvick

After finishing in the top 10 of the final standings the last three seasons, Harvick is in his last season with Richard Childress Racing. He has driven all 12 seasons of his career for RCR, but will move to Stewart-Haas Racing next season. Will he finally be able to win a championship at RCR in his last season?

Danica Patrick

Before the season, Patrick caused a media frenzy after announcing she is dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. She then proceeded to win the pole at Daytona, and made history with her eighth-place finish. But she blew a right-front tire in Phoenix and finished 39th. Expectations are high for the former Indy driver in her rookie season, and the hype is here to stay.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s 10-time most popular driver went through a detox diet in the offseason to slim down and make his firesuits fit a little better. Maybe it helped, as he finished second at Daytona and fifth at Phoenix, a strong start for a driver still looking for his first championship.

Last year’s Kobalt Tools 400 champion, Tony Stewart, will look to defend his title at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 10. Television coverage will begin at 1:30 p.m. on FOX.