One of the complaints from the media this year has been that this 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season just hasn't developed momentum. One of the reasons is that the schedule already has had two breaks in it -- one between Atlanta and Bristol, and the other for Easter. That's two off weekends during the first six races.
One of those breaks -- the first one -- just wasn't necessary. We could have used a break in the current run of races, which began last week in Phoenix, this week in Texas and then continues until the second week of July in Chicago. That's a grind to anyone.
Then we begin a 12-week blitz with a race in Atlanta on Labor Day Weekend that runs until the end of the season on Nov. 21. That's Labor Day to Thanksgiving without a break. A break in there would probably be nice, too.
But this season's lack of momentum can probably also be traced to the start-and-stop nature of the Daytona 500 and the pothole in Turn 2. That was frustrating for everyone, NASCAR included.
So while many believe the season is just now beginning to develop a tempo, some critics complain there is just too much racing, resulting in overexposure.
Here's my two cents.
The complaints you hear about the grind of NASCAR comes from within the garage area and the media. It is a beating to be on the road for such long periods. But that's the nature of racing. You are going to travel and race from city to city. Nobody held a gun to your head to make you do this. You chose this, so stop the complaining.
Those that say this season hasn't developed momentum are right, but that's about to change with this 14-race stretch without a break. The race fans want and need a weekly installment of their favorite soap opera that is NASCAR. Except for Easter, I would run eight races and then take an off weekend to let the crews recharge their batteries.
But I would give the fans what they want, especially early in the season. A 14-race stretch started last weekend. The series is here in Texas this week. Next week they go to Talladega.
9 a.m.-noon: No. 27 Red Man Moist Snuff Ford Fusion (NNS) -- Loves, 200 Garden Acres Dr., Fort Worth.
11 a.m.-2 p.m.: No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota Camry (NSCS) -- Safeway, 18212 Preston Rd., Dallas.
11 a.m.-4 p.m.: No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota Camry (NSCS) -- Lowe's, 3313 North Fourth St., Longview.
1 p.m.-4 p.m.: No. 27 Red Man Moist Snuff Ford Fusion (NNS) -- Loves, 8900 I-35, Denton.
4 p.m.: Tony Stewart (No. 14 NSCS Driver) -- Office Depot, 1317 State Highway 114 West , Grapevine (wristbands available to the first 700 people at Office Depot starting at 8 a.m.; Must be in line by 5 p.m. to receive autograph).
4 p.m.-7 p.m.: No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota Camry (NSCS) -- Safeway, 3411 Custer Pkwy., Richardson.
THURSDAY, APRIL 15
Open-close: No. 48 Lowe's Chevy Impala (NSCS) -- Lowe's, 2773 East Eldorado Pkwy, Little Elm.
10 a.m.-1 p.m.: No. 24 Hefty Ford Fusion (NNS) -- Wal-Mart, 800 S Hwy 81/287, Decatur.
2 p.m.-5 p.m.: No. 24 Hefty Ford Fusion (NNS) -- Wal-Mart, 1515 S. Loop 288, Denton.
3 p.m.-6 p.m.: No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevy Impala (NSCS) -- Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy, 14999 Preston Rd., Dallas.
4 p.m.-7 p.m.: No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota Camry (NSCS) -- Safeway, 302 S. Park Blvd., Grapevine.
SUNDAY, APRIL 18
10:05 a.m.-10:35 a.m.: Brian Vickers (No. 83 NSCS Driver) -- Red Bull Merchandise Trailer, Texas Motor Speedway Midway (tickets available at Vickers Merchandise Trailer starting Saturday and early Sunday).
10 a.m.-4 p.m.: No. 24 Hefty Ford Fusion (NNS) -- Brookshire's Tent, Texas Motor Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just three wins since 2004, but he remains NASCAR's most popular driver.
When the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season started, a USA Today story essentially said that the easiest way the sport could improve its TV ratings and attendance would be for Earnhardt to win races. That on the heels of the worst Cup season in Earnhardt's career. He hasn't won a race in nearly two years, was 25th in the point standings, posting only two top-5 and three top-10 finishes.
Junior only has the success of the sport riding squarely on his shoulders while he tries to work his way out of a slump.
Fair or not, success early in Junior's career and being the namesake of arguably the greatest driver of all time -- seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt -- have placed the driver of the #88 Chevrolet in a tough spot.
"It's like the Lakers or Celtics," said Brian France, NASCAR chairman. "He is the major franchise, and if he returns to that high level, it'll help."
The only person I can think of that could possibly relate is Kyle Petty, the son of the sport's only other seven-time champ, Richard Petty. When the younger Petty came on the scene, he won the very first race -- the 1979 ARCA race at Daytona. While ARCA is not NASCAR, Petty found himself on the front page of newspapers across the country, suddenly the sport's phenom and its biggest overnight name.
How did that work out? Not bad. He scored eight wins in a 30-year career that saw him run 846 Cup races. But it didn't come close to his father's record 200 NASCAR wins.
However he knows, if only to some degree, the level of pressure Dale Jr. has to deal with.
"The sport has changed so much since I came along in 1979," Kyle Petty said. "I didn't really know pressure or expectations and our sport was growing rapidly. But in the last couple of years the economy has been upside down and ratings are down a little, so everybody thinks the quickest relief is for Junior to win. He's a smart guy. He knows everybody points toward him as the quick, easy solution. That only increases the pressure, more pressure than anyone in our sport has ever had to deal with. Trust me, its got to be tough being Dale Earnhardt Jr."
What about being The Intimidator's son?
"My advice to him is to be himself, not to try to be his dad," Kyle Petty said. "I never tried to be Richard Petty. Of course, people will say I succeeded at that because I never had The King's success. But I did my best and it's not reasonable to demand anything more from Junior. There was only one Richard Petty and only one Dale Earnhardt Jr. Trust me, he's done great and he'll win again."
So give Dale Jr. some slack. It's not easy carrying the full weight of NASCAR on his shoulders. It's not easy being Dale Earnhardt's son.
Pro bowler Norm Duke (left) and NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth exchange autographed bowling pins while visiting the International Bowling Hall of Fame in Arlington, Texas.
ARLINGTON -- NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth, currently third in the Sprint Cup season standings, found himself going head-to-head Wednesday with a Hall of Famer on a different kind of lane than he's accustomed to.
Car: No. 17 Crown Royal Ford Team: Roush Fenway Racing Sprint Cup standings: Third Ht./Wt.: 5-9, 152 pounds Family: Wife Katie, son Ross, daughter Kaylin Hometown: Cambridge, Wis. Resides: Mooresville, N.C. Sprint Cup wins: 18 Wins at TMS: 1 (2002) Top 5s at TMS: 7 Top 10s at TMS: 10
Kenseth was in town to help promote the Samsung Mobile 500 on April 18 at Texas Motor Speedway, but he found himself bowling against PBA Hall of Famer Norm Duke and then TMS president Eddie Gossage.
Kenseth has had success at Texas Motor Speedway, having visited Victory Lane in 2002. He's also tied for the most top-5 finishes (seven, with Jeff Gordon) and has led the most all-time laps at the track (497).
After bowling a few games, Kenseth sat down with ESPNDallas.com to answer a few questions:
Q: How do you account for the turnaround coming off last year's disappointing finish?
Kenseth: Since Daytona, we've improved every week. We don't have all the finishes we wish we had, but all the guys are upbeat. It has been so much fun. Our car is faster this year and that makes the job easier for everybody.
How important is the new crew chief (Todd Parrott, who replaced Drew Blickenderfer after last season)?
Sometimes, it is good to make changes. Todd is very upbeat. He's good at seeing which guys need to be lifted up. He's been a part of successful teams in the past and he's a natural leader. I'm not. He's the emotional type, unlike myself.
The new spoilers, how do you feel about the change to the car?
I'm not anticipating anything different. I'm a little unsure going to Texas for the race, but my experience so far, if you didn't tell me they were on the car, I wouldn't be able to tell it.
Is Jimmie Johnson (winner of four consecutive NASCAR championships) the measuring stick for all drivers?
We can't just judge our performance against one team. We have to look at all the teams and measure ourselves against all of them.
What is your opinion of Texas Motor Speedway?
I enjoy it here. That's the reason I think I've been successful here.
How does a Wisconsin kid find his way to Sprint Cup racing?
I was fortunate that people saw me racing when I was young, liked what they saw and gave me a chance.
Is everything OK with you and Jeff Gordon after your get-together in Martinsville?
Jeff and I have had some incidents over the years, but those were in the past and we just move on and go from here. I'm fine with everything. He should be fine, too, since he got a third-place out of it in Martinsville.
Your family has four cats?
Sure, we've got plenty of room.
What's harder, a green-white-checkered finish or being the father of a 9-month-old daughter?
Being a dad is fun. I guess we've had three of the green-white-checkered finishes since they put in the rule. My opinion is where the cars end up, that's where they should end up.
How many speeding tickets have you gotten?
I haven't had one in 12 or 13 years. When you drive 200 mph for a living, you don't need to speed.
So let me give you a peek behind the curtain that is NASCAR Sprint Cup racing: Some drivers don't like other drivers.
That's the way it is, and that's the way it has always been. Even in recent years as NASCAR cracked down on the slightest indiscretion, some drivers still didn't like each other. But they couldn't tell you what they really thought less they be hauled into the big yellow truck and would come out about $10,000 lighter for their time.
But in this day of, "Have at it boys," you now are hearing what these guys have been saying under their breath the last few years.
In the first six races of the season, we've seen a major blow-up between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, along with some very strong words. We saw a confrontation between drivers in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series when Ron Hornaday and Johnny Sauter had a "discussion" on pit road after a race. We also saw the resumption of a feud between two former Cup series champions between Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth last weekend.
John Harrelson/Getty Images
Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth renewed their rivalry, which has been downright unfriendly in the past, with a last-lap bump last week at Martinsville.
The two drivers, both smack dab in the thick of the battle for this year's championship, have gone at it before. What is surprising is that the public image of the two is that they are relatively mild-mannered guys even though they had a series of run-ins in 2006.
Kenseth spun out Gordon at Bristol that year, costing Gordon a top-five finish. In a first for Gordon's storied career, the four-time champion furiously confronted Kenseth and angrily shoved him right in front of the network TV cameras. Gordon, nobody's fool, still wore his helmet.
Just a few months later, Gordon got even. As Kenseth appeared en route to victory at Chicagoland, Gordon spun him out to win the race.
The NASCAR suits made it clear to both drivers that they needed to steer clear of each other. And they did. As far as the public was concerned the 2006 feud was history.
But what we didn't know in the "Open-Your-Mouth-and-Get-Fined" era of NASCAR is that -- perhaps -- the feud still simmered. Quietly. Not in the media. But perhaps it still simmered.
Then last week it was, "Have at it boys." And they did.
Kenseth leaned on Gordon. Gordon pushed back. Neither won the race but nerves between the two were frayed, as illustrated by the out-of-character quotes from the two.
"Jeff is sneaky," Kenseth said. "He's good at that stuff. He comes away squeaky-clean all the time. That's about the third time he took me out of a top-three finish. I'm about tired of that. I pretty much forgot about it for the last couple of years, but he never gives me an inch.
"He wants me out of his way every time he's faster, and I get out of his way every times he's faster. But when it comes the other way around, he never wants to give anybody any room back."
Gordon obviously didn't see it that way.
"I made sure he didn't win the race," Gordon said. "The way he raced today I didn't think is the way I would have raced him. If somebody hits me, I'm going to him them. If a guy gives you a cheap shot like that, he doesn't deserve to win the race."
Wow. Those kinds of comments would have been non-existent -- or at least private -- in recent years. Now everybody gets to hear the dirty linen aired in public. It's as if NASCAR took the muzzle off.
Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, has emerged as not only the top challenger to Jimmie Johnson's reign as series champion but also is the series' most dominant driver this year.
Jimmie Johnson has won three of the first five races this season, and Busch has won one. And I know Kevin Harvick sits atop the point standings while Busch is sixth.
But Busch is winning fans over with his hard-charging style. Through the first five races, Busch has led 28 percent of laps run (441 laps led of the 1,555 run thus far). But in a year in which NASCAR has encouraged drivers to speak their mind, Busch's comment after he led more than half the laps at Bristol before finishing second to Johnson has caught the ear of many fans.
Geoff Burke/NASCAR/Getty Images
In his last three races, Kurt Busch earned the pole at Las Vegas, won at Atlanta and finished third at Bristol.
"I would rather lose to any one of the 41 cars out these than this 48 (Johnson) car," Busch spat immediately after the bitter loss.
That's what NASCAR is talking about. Wrecking each other is one thing, and some might like it. But what NASCAR encouraged is for drivers to run hard, lead laps and say what they really think. No more, "Well, it was a good points day."
Screw the points! Leading races. Winning races. That's what fans want to see. And they don't want a guy who is not ticked off when he doesn't win. Who would?
For the record, Johnson has led 203 laps -- or 13 percent of the laps run this year. Busch has won a pole (Las Vegas), while Johnson has none this year. Busch has one win, two top-five finishes and three top-10s. Johnson has three wins, three top-five finishes and three top-10 finishes.
But it is the hard-charging style and willingness to show his dissatisfaction with losing that has helped Busch stand out this season. A new crew chief, Steve Addington, who last worked with Busch's brother, Kyle, at Joe Gibbs Racing, has made an immediate impact.
Early in the season, it looks like Busch's "Blue Deuce" is the top challenger to stop Johnson's quest for five straight championships.
This week a writer from Redbook (yes, the women's magazine) asked me what I would do if I were running NASCAR to improve the sport.
I thought about it for a moment and said, "Nothing. The racing is better than it has been in so many years. We have more lead changes and closer margin of victory than the supposedly good ol' days. Nothing, really."
The reporter sounded disappointed. He said he was told I was one of the better interviews in sports and was surprised at my response. After all, I've never pulled any punches in saying the NASCAR emperor has no clothes.
So I thought about it. Is that really how I felt?
Well, I have long wanted NASCAR to let the drivers handle things between themselves, the way it used to be done.
Good job, NASCAR. (Some, particularly the folks at NASCAR's world-wide headquarters in Daytona Beach, never thought they would hear me say that.)
The fans weren't crazy about the new race car, previously called the "Car of Tomorrow." So NASCAR is eliminating the ugly rear wing and going back to the spoiler next week in Martinsville. Part of it is function, because many think the spoiler will allow more side-by-side racing, and part of it is aesthetics, because NASCAR race cars have historically run a spoiler.
Good move, NASCAR.
Since I really like NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, which has been the subject of some fan discomfort, I have to support NASCAR on that one. Every other sport has a playoff, why not our sport? Brian France has been a strong, inclusive leader, and I have to give him credit.
But what would I change if I were dictator for the day? (That's not a bad idea, actually.)
And there it was in the paper today. Start-and-parks. That's what I would change.
The start-and-park practice has become obvious to even the most casual observers in the last 3-4 years. That's a car that qualifies but has no plans to truly race. The driver will run a handful of laps and then park the car, pocketing the last-place prize money. It just shows you how (ridiculously) high the purses are at NASCAR Sprint Cup races these days. Word has it that a NASCAR Nationwide start-and-park team netted -- netted -- $600,000 last year for former Cup series driver and now team owner Phil Parsons. And I thought everyone was complaining that there was no money in the Nationwide Series these days.
The rumor has it that Parsons decided to move his start-and-park team to the bigger money, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, this year. Why not qualify, run a few laps and then park the car, taking home the much bigger last-place money in the premiere series?
So Parsons, a racing lifer who knows how to make race cars go very fast, is fielding a Cup team or two in races here and there.
This weekend at Bristol, one of his cars driven by Dave Blaney qualified third -- third -- fastest. Blaney admitted that he doesn't know if Parsons will allow him to truly race Sunday or order him to park the car and collect the purse money.
Now, I like Blaney and I really like Parsons. You have to give credit to an entrepreneur like Parsons who knows he can't finance a team well enough to race mid-pack, much less at the front of the pack. He found a loophole.
But is that fair to the fans? Is it fair to the promoter? Is there one fan who buys a ticket to see Blaney run eight laps? Is it fair to require the promoter to pay more than $80,000 to Parsons' team after Blaney parks the car?
No. There is no question about that. As a promoter I'd rather start 35 cars than pay several hundred thousand dollars to cars that aren't going to contribute to the quality of the race and aren't going to draw one fan to the race.
NASCAR does have a new a rule this year requiring that the first car out be inspected and must have a legitimate reason to park the car. But there are so many things that can be "wrong" with a car and much of the discretion falls to the driver.
So, NASCAR, you've done a good job -- make that a great job -- addressing some of the issues in the sport.
Fort Worth officials recently visited the home of the largest annual sporting event in the world to study ways to host fans at the largest annual sporting event in Texas.
Officials representing the city of Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Convention and Visitor's Bureau and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce just returned from Indianapolis to learn how that city utilizes the Indy 500 as a tourism and economic development tool. The officials are hoping to put some of what they learned to use during the week of the April 18 Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Welcoming the Fort Worth leaders was Greg Ballard, mayor of Indianapolis. Ballard, who became emotional as he explained what the Indianapolis 500 means to the city, attended the IRL IndyCar season opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The Indy representatives included officials with the 500 Festival, the city of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitor's Bureau and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Among one of the revelations were that the city of Indianapolis employs a person full-time in its economic development office that focuses solely on motorsports.
The 500 Festival hosts the kickoff event for the Memorial Day weekend race, a mini-marathon and 5k run on the first weekend in May that includes the famous 2.5-mile speedway as part of the runner's course. Additionally, the 500 Festival holds a nationally televised parade, a Memorial Day service honoring the armed forces and the annual Snakepit Ball. To successfully stage the events, approximately 7,000 volunteers are used from the community.
Ballard said he will cut short a mayoral visit to India in order to be on hand to wave the green flag to start the mini-marathon and 5k run that attracts 40,000 runners. Indianapolis, which has used sporting events as a key tourism and economic development tool, is home to the NCAA and will host this year's Final Four and the 2012 Super Bowl.
Fort Worth already plans to step up efforts to attract more racing fans to town, with "Welcome Race Fans" billboards on I-35W; banners on lamp posts in downtown Fort Worth; banners across downtown streets; and signage at baggage carousels, departure gate concourses and exits at DFW Airport similar to plans for the recent NBA All-Star Game and the 2011 Super Bowl.