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Legends of NASCAR race at Bristol

   NASCAR begins its spring short track season Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.  Would you believe that the track known for years as the toughest ticket in the sports still has seats available?  After selling out 53 consecutive Cup races going back over 13 years,  fans who have longed to attend a race at NASCAR’s most popular track have the opportunity to do just that.  
Sunday’s Food City 500 caps a three-day race weekend that begins with practice for the Nationwide series cars and qualifying for the Cup Cars.  Saturday is the running of the Scotts Turf Builder 300, one of the premiere Nationwide events on the schedule with a host of Sprint Cup drivers participating.
   Also on the schedule Saturday is the highly anticipated Scotts Saturday Night Special at Bristol, an all-star race featuring some of the great legends of the sport.  Race fans who thought  they had seen the last race of  Cale Yarborough, Harry Gant, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace, or even Junior Johnson are in for a big  surprise.
   Those champion drivers and more are scheduled to be a part of the first Saturday Night Special.  Paired with celebrity partners, these legendary racers will run 35 laps of a 50 lap event to benefit charity and send race fans on a trip down memory lane.
   “We made the decision over the winter to take what we believe is the best fan experience in racing and make it even better,” said Jeff  Byrd, President and General Manager of Bristol Motor Speedway.  ”When we started talking about this, we wanted to take the Food City 500 weekend to another level. We believe having these celebrated drivers back on the track where they all have won in a stock car does that.  These guys helped make Bristol."
   Assigned teammates will start the race and run 15 laps. At the end of that segment, some of Bristol’s best will start the second portion of the race in the order of finish of the first segment.
Drivers will be competing in late model stock cars painted to replicate the cars they made famous and $425,000 will be donated to the charity of choice of the winning team.  The second place team will have $10,000 given to the charity of their choice, and third place receives $5,000 donated to their favorite charity.
   But…that big Bristol trophy they get to keep for themselves.
   “It’s been a while” said Junior Johnson, who has one win as a driver, but 20 at Bristol as a car owner. “But I think I can still turn some laps around this place.”
   Cale Yarborough won nine times in 29 starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, including eight wins in 12 starts from 1973 through 1978.  In March of 1973, Yarborough led all 500 laps of the Southeastern 500, followed four years later by leading 495 laps in the spring race.  “Cale Yarborough is one of the greatest drivers in NACAR history and his performances at Bristol are legendary,” said speedway president and General Manager Jeff Byrd.  
   Rusty Wallace also has nine wins at Bristol, his last coming in 2000 when he swept both races at the .533 mile oval.  
   Darrell Waltrip, Bristol’s all-time winner with 12 victories has had to pull out of the race because of a scheduling conflict.  “It seems crazy, but I am busier now than I was when I was a driver,” said Waltrip.  “I have some commitments for Fox Sports that have come up since we began talking with the folks at Bristol about this race. I was looking forward to getting out there with some of those guys again; and some of them for the first time. After years with Junior Johnson as my boss, I was excited about rubbing fenders with him.”
   Other drivers expected to compete include David Green, Jack Ingram, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, and L. D. Ottinger, Phil Parsons, and Jimmy Spencer.
   After Bristol, current points determine automatic starters.  Four races down, meaning it’s one to go before this season’s car owner points determine the top 35 automatic starting spots on a weekly basis. For the first five races of each season, the previous season’s final owner’s points determine the guarantees.
   Three teams in trouble  leap off the stats sheet at a glance: Mark Martin in the No. 5; Hendrick Motorsport Chevrolet is 35th.  Rookie Joey Logano in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs; Racing Toyota is 33Rd;  and Ryan Newman in the No. 39   Stewart – Haas Racing Chevrolet in 32nd position.

 

The other Busch wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Last Sunday’s running of the KOBALT Tools 500 marked the 100 NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor speedway.  Since the track was reconfigured twelve years ago it has evolved into the fastest track on the circuit.
Along with this reputation has grown the reputation of races plagued by tire problems.   Drivers routinely describe racing at Atlanta like racing on a sheet of ice.   One thing for sure, it makes for some exciting racing.
Here is a look back at some of the most memorable races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.  
On July 31, 1960 - Fireball Roberts wins the first race at the new speedway. At that time today’s Sprint Cup series was known as the Grand National Series.
Nov. 5, 1978 – Richard Petty thought he had defeated rival Cale Yarborough to win the race, however, a scoring snafu is discovered afterwards and the victory was awarded to Donnie Allison.
Nov. 15, 1992 – Alan Kulwicki may have finished second in the race, but it was good enough for him to overtake Bill Elliott and claim his first and only Cup Championship by a slim 10 point margin. Many long-time fans consider this one of the greatest NASCAR races ever.  It also marked the final race for Richard Petty, and  the debut of the young man who would change the face of NASCAR: twenty-two year old Jeff Gordon.  Kulwicki would have a short time to reign as champion. The popular driver lost his life in an airplane crash enroute to the Bristol race the following spring.
March 12, 2000 – Dale Earnhardt beat Bobby Labonte to the checkered flag by .01 seconds to record his ninth and final victory at Atlanta. Earnhardt’s nine wins remain the most of any driver at the Georgia track.
March 11, 2001 – Kevin Harvick held off Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds to record his first career Cup victory. The victory came on the heels of the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona just a few weeks earlier. Earnhardt’s famed black Chevrolet had been painted white and renumbered 29.   Twenty-five year old rookie Kevin Harvick from Bakersfield, California was given the daunting task of driving the car. It was an emotional win, not only for the young rookie, but for car owner Richard Childress, and marked the second straight win for his team at the Atlanta spring race.
Last Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 did not disappoint. Kurt Busch had the dominant car all day but due to the numerous cautions  his race came down to a green, white, checkered duel between Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards. In the end,Kurt Busch would not be denied and the 2004 Cup champion logged career-win number 19.  It was an all Busch weekend at Atlanta as younger brother Kyle won Saturday's truck race.  
It’s getting down to crunch time for the top 35 positioning. For the first five races of the season, the top 35 teams from the final 2008 car owners' points get guaranteed starting positions.  After Bristol in two weeks the guaranteed berths are based on the 2009 owners' point standings.  With just one race remaining before the top 35 owners points come into play, there are some intriguing stories to keep an eye on.
For example, the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet driven by young rookie Joey Logano is 33rd.  The No.  39 Haas Automation Chevrolet driven by Ryan Newman and owned by Tony Stewart is 32nd. The Pole sitter at Atlanta Mark Martin is No. 5 and Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is 34th.   
Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebounded at Las Vegas, posting his first top 10 of the season with a tenth place finish in the Shelby 427 and followed that with an eleventh place finish Sunday at Atlanta.   The performance moved him up to 24th in the points standings.  
Earnhardt has an uphill battle; no driver has come back from that far back after four races to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  
“We really needed that top 10 finish,” said Earnhardt. “We know that we have to put together six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We’ve got some good tracks coming up where we can do just that. We’ve got to keep our heads on straight and be smart.”
You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

"Say goodnight, Gracie," Kyle Busch wins at Vegas

   Las Vegas is the home town of Kyle and Kurt Busch who grew up racing on the “bull-ring” dirt track across the street from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  The Busch brothers had much success at the dirt track, but surprisingly neither had won a NASCAR national series race at LVMS. That was until Sunday.
Both have kicked the 2009 season off to a good start. Kurt came in to Sunday’s race in third place in the Cup series standings with a tenth place finish at Daytona, and a fifth place finish at California’s Auto Club Speedway.  Kurt has posted one top five and two top tens in eight starts at LVMS.
   Kyle Busch was 18th in the Cup Standings coming into last Sunday’s Shelby 427, riding the momentum of his record-setting weekend Auto Club Speedway in California.  He became the first driver ever to win a NASCAR Nationwide Series and a Camping World truck Series race in the same day.  
Kyle sat on the pole at Las Vegas, and older brother Kurt was just a tick behind to capture the front row spot on the outside row.  
   Unfortunately, the home town crowd was deprived of the chance to cheer for their favorite brother as they battled to lead the opening lap. Kyle blew an engine in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota during practice and had to drop to the rear of the field following the parade lap.  The good news for the fans was the opportunity to watch  the younger Busch brother claw his way through the field when the green flag dropped.
   Asked his thoughts on returning to race in his hometown Kyle said, “On one hand it’s just another race, but then again always coming back to Vegas and being back in your home town is exiting. After California last weekend, we feel we can come out and challenge here. Add in the home track and you always want to come out and try to get the win in front of your die-hard fans.”
   When the green flag dropped, Kyle charged from the back of the field and was a contender throughout the race.   Busch took the lead for the final time with 15 laps to go when he moved up from third place passing Richard Childress teammates, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.   
As he cleared Bowyer to take the lead, the Fox TV staff was monitoring his radio channel and race fans heard him exclaim over his radio, ”Say Goodnight Gracie. ”  It was Cup career win number 13 for the 23 year-old and his first win at his hometown track.  
   Jeff Gordon fans have finally got something to cheer about following the four-time Cup champion's dismal 2008 season that saw Gordon fail to win a race for the first time since his rookie season way back in 1993.  Hard to believe the sports former boy wonder is in his seventeenth season on the Cup circuit.
For the third week in a row Gordon had the best finish by a Hendrick Motorsports driver.  His fifth place finish Sunday in Las Vegas moved Gordon into the lead in the points chase, 18 points ahead of Clint Bowyer and 40 ahead of Matt Kenseth who came into Las Vegas with wins in the season's first two races. Las Vegas did not prove to be as lucky for the 2003 Cup champion who was the first car to exit Sunday's Shelby 472.  Kenseth retired with engine trouble after completing just 6 laps.
   “I’m so excited about this race team right now,” said Gordon.  “I just think we’re head and shoulders above where we were last year.”  For those who keep up with trivia, Gordon reached a milestone on lap eleven of Sunday’s Shelby 427.  Lap eleven was Jeff Gordon’s 20,000 lap of competition run in NASCAR Cup racing.  
   Gordon’s teammates have not shared his success so far in the new season.  Of the three, defending three-time champion Jimmie Johnson is fairing the best.  He  came into Las Vegas in 19th place in the standings after posting a 31st place finish at Daytona, and a 9th place finish at California.  Johnson left Las Vegas still in 19th, after struggling to a disappointing 24th place finish.
 
   After dropping out of the Auto Club 500 in California with engine trouble, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.  finished in 40th and 10th place Sunday. 

Movie stars, casinos and racing, NASCAR's "real" season set to begin

   After the frustration of the rain shortened Daytona 500, the series headed west to Southern California and the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. The logistics of the long haul from Daytona to southern California no doubt played a part in NASCAR’s decision to call the Daytona 500 so quickly after the rains began.
   Asked last weekend in California about not waiting out the rain and running the Daytona 500 to completion, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said, “That’s fine if we didn’t have other obligations further down the road. Teams had to start traveling out here Monday evening or Tuesday at some time. It’s a great race. There’s a lot of prestige that goes along with it, but it is just one of our many, many races that we conduct during the season and all of our races basically have the same guidelines whether it’s rain shortened and we try to do for the fans and out of respect for the people who are sitting in the stands. For instance you can look at what we went through at Michigan a couple years ago. What if we had gotten 100 laps at Michigan and then actually sat there for three more days to get the race in?  Where do you draw the line?  I think everybody knows going in what we’re faced with and understands.”
   So last weekend the traveling circus that is NASCAR racing was off to lotus land with Matt Kenseth riding the crest of his first career Daytona 500.  Roush Fenway Racing rules at Auto Club Speedway, especially of late. The team has a collective six wins at the 2 mile track near Los Angeles, including the last four February events there, and Kenseth owns two of them.  Back to back triumphs in the February race in 2006 and '07.  
   Teammate Carl Edwards is the defending Auto Club 500 champion. Another teammate Greg Biffle won the race in 2005.   Speaking before last Sunday’s race Kenseth said, “We know the equipment is there, I really feel like I’ve got the team to win.”
   Three-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson finished a disappointing 31st in the season opening Daytona 500.  Since winning the 2006 Daytona 500, Johnson has finishes of 39th in 2007, and 27th in 2008 to pair with this seasons 31st place finish.  “We knew we weren’t up to speed then,” Johnson said of last season’s poor start.  “We were trying to work on it and correct it  when we knew we were off.   This year we don’t have a clue.  We haven’t tested.  My fingers are crossed,  but I have to have the mindset that we’re going to be off and just have to learn going forward from Fontana.”
   After a weekend of fun in the sun in Southern California, the NASCAR contingent moves on to Las Vegas for a weeklong celebration of automobile racing, culminating in Sunday’s  Shelby 427.  NASCAR week in Las Vegas begins  today, featuring USAC Sprint Cars and Midgets  on Las Vegas Motor Speedways half-mile dirt track. 
   Thursday is the Parade of the NASCAR haulers on the Las Vegas Strip. In 2008, tens of thousands of people lined the Strip to watch the NASCAR team haulers parade down one of the country’s most famous streets.  The 2009 edition of the parade begins at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday. Feb 26. The colorful NASCAR team haulers, transporting the Sprint Cup race cars that will compete in Sunday's Shelby 427, will parade north on the Strip among the world's most well-known hotels and casinos.
   “During the week of the NASCAR events in Las Vegas this entire town becomes NASCAR crazy,” said Chris Powell, Las Vegas Motor Speedway General Manager.  The Speedway expects 48 to 50 haulers to take part in the parade. Thursday night the World of Outlaw Sprint Cars take to the LVMS dirt track.  Friday is pole qualifying for the NASCAR Cup cars in the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Super Speedway. 
   Carl Edwards is the defending race winner of last year's Las Vegas cup race.  It also was the scene of last year's first big cheating dust up, when Edwards was allowed to keep the win but his team was docked  100 points and his crew chief was fined and suspended  when NASCAR inspectors found the oil cooler cover loose in a post race inspection.
 

Bud Shootout a great warmup for Sunday's Daytona 500


   If last Saturday night's Bud Shootout is any indicator, Sunday's Daytona 500 should be a real barn burner.  
   As contrived as the process for selecting the starting field was, the race itself was great.  It pretty much had something for everyone.  Fan favorite and last year's shootout winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. led on several occasions before getting taken out in a late race wreck.  
   The race had a record 23 lead changes and a record 8 caution flags.  When the race came to an end as the caution flag waved for the final time on the last lap of an attempted green, white, checkered flag finish, the surprising winner was Kevin Harvick.  Prior to the final lap Harvick’s only claim to fame on the evening was being involved in two or three of the earlier race accidents.  It was Harvick’s first win since his last lap victory over Mark Martin in the 2007 Daytona 500.  
   The lack of off season testing was  readily apparent as the cars appeared very unstable throughout the race.  The shootout had to be a great benefit to the drivers who had a chance to log some extra seat time prior to Sunday's 500.  
   Before Saturday night's race Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked about the importance of his win in last year's Bud Shootout.   “Winning the first race of the year, whether it’s for points or no points is always special,” Earnhardt said.  “There’s no better way to start a season than by winning the first one right out of the gate. It doesn’t necessarily determine how the rest of your Speedweeks will go, because we run different cars for the Daytona 500.  But, it’s the opening act for a new season, and everyone wants to start off with a bang. I guess it’s more important for bragging rights.”
   Last season, Jimmie Johnson became the first driver in 30 years to win three consecutive Cup championships. In 2009, he’ll try to make it four straight, something that’s never been accomplished in NASCAR history.  With crew chief Chad Knaus back atop the pit box, and the resources of Hendrick Motorsports behind him, all the ingredients are there.
One problem, the bullseye on the back of the No. 48 team is even bigger this season. Plenty of teams are looking to knock them off.  .
   This close.  That could have been the catch phrase for both Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch in 2008. Only a couple of missteps derailed their respective championship hopes.  Edwards won a series-high nine races in 2008, finishing second in the points standings. Only an accident at Talladega and engine troubles at Lowe’s Motor Speedway during the Chase for the Sprint Cup kept him from hoisting the championship trophy.
   A winner of eight regular season races, Kyle Busch came into the Chase as the top seed, and runaway favorite.  Once the final ten race Chase began, the young man from Las Vegas was totally snake bit. The normally reliable Joe Gibbs Racing engines failed in first two Chase events and completely derailed his title hopes.
   NASCAR’s original wunderkind, and four time champion Jeff Gordon went winless in 2008 for the first time in 14 years.  Prior to last year, Gordon had won at least two races every season since 1994.  Speaking of wunderkids, the young man they are calling  “Sliced Bread,” Joey Logano will make history Sunday by becoming the youngest driver to start a Daytona 500 in the race's 51 year history.  Logano will be 18 years, 9 months and 22 days old when he straps into Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Home Depot Toyota Sunday.  
   “I went down here the last five or six years and I’ve had to watch from the sidelines. To be involved in the race this year is really exciting,” Logano said. “There’s just so much history and to be able to be on the same track that so many legends have won at is really an honor.”  
Former Champion and now Fox TV racing analyst Darrell Waltrip had the best line about the youthful Logano, Waltrip said  on last Saturday night's broadcast, “ Joey Logano looks like he should be carrying a backpack and heading off to high school. “
   There are 56 cars present at Daytona competing for the 43 starting spots in the field. With all the driver and sponsor changes, even long-time race fans will need a program to sort out who is driving what car.  

You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Budweiser Shootout kicks off season for Cup Drivers

   This year’s Bud Shootout has stirred up an inordinate amount of griping, grumbling and general waste of time and breath from a lot of race fans.  It seems since it is no longer a race for last season’s pole winners, many race fans are all bound up with confusion as to what the race represents and what has NASCAR done with the traditional first Cup race of Speedweeks.  
   The why it has changed is easier than the what it has become. Once again in modern day NASCAR  land,  it is all about the money.
 In NASCAR’s  ongoing effort to wring money out of everything but bathroom breaks, and with the sport’s  many “corporate partners” wanting to balance their individual  advertising and promotional budgets in a disastrous economy, there has been an unprecedented number of changes in the various “corporate partners” and the promotions in which they participate.
   Thus the Craftsman Truck series has become the Camping World Truck Series. The Busch series is now the Nationwide series; Sunoco is now the official fuel of NASCAR, and on and on.
   For years Anheuser-Busch brewery has sponsored a special award for the pole winner at each Cup race.  For years they used it to promote their Busch brand of beer.  The car that was the fastest qualifier at each race throughout the season won the Busch Pole award, and each February they kicked off the Stock Car portion of Speedweeks with a race for the previous season’s pole winners.  Fans excitedly waited each February for the Busch Clash.
A number of years ago Anheuser-Busch decided they could get a bigger bang for their buck by promoting their Budweiser brand instead of their Busch beer.  The Busch Pole award became the Bud Pole award, and the annual Busch Clash race became the Bud Shootout.  Race fans and beer fans, pretty much one and the same, didn’t much care and all was right with the world.
   Enter money and budgets. Last year Anheuser-Busch made the decision to cut back on  its advertising and discontinued sponsorship of the award for the pole winner of each race throughout the season.  NASCAR set out to find a new “corporate partner” to replace the annual check they lost when Anheuser-Busch walked away from the pole award program.  Enter Coors Brewery.   Coors wrote NASCAR a big check and presto, chango, last season the car with the fastest qualifying time at each race became the Coors Pole award winner.   
   Fast forward to February 2009, Daytona International Speedway has a teaser race scheduled for the weekend before the Daytona 500 and a contract for Anheuser-Busch to sponsor the race.  The fans are ready to see some racing.  With the NFL season over, the TV networks need some product to entertain the sports fans of America who are shut in on cold February weekends. It’s time for some Racin’.  
   There’s just one problem.  
   What’s the hook, the gimmick, the reason for the annual pre-500 teaser race?  Understandably Budweiser was not keen on sponsoring a race featuring the Coors Pole winners.  What to do?
   Where there’s money there’s a way.  
   Presenting the new, improved 2009 Budweiser Shootout.   The lineup would consist of the top six teams from each manufacturer, based on the final 2008 car owner points. Eligibility is based on owners competing in this event with the same manufacturer as 2008.   Fair enough.  Then NASCAR took a look around and realized that with all the driver changes, mergers etc, the field for the Shootout lacked a bit of star power.  No Tony Stewart. No Bobby Labonte.  No Robby Gordon.  Time for plan B.
   On January 16, NASCAR announced the revised Format for the 2009 Bud Shootout.  The new wrinkle called for each manufacturer to be able to enter a seventh car, or “Wild Card” entry.  
This year’s race distance will be increased from 70 to 75 laps. The race will be run in two segments of 25 and 50 laps.  Both green and yellow flag laps will count.  Between segments there will be a 10 minute pit stop, at which time teams may elect to change tires, add fuel and make normal chassis adjustments.  Changing springs, shocks absorbers or rear ends will not be permitted.  
   It’s a meaningless little race to whet our appetites for next weekend’s Daytona 500.  It’s product for the TV networks and seat time for the drivers.  Another way for the speedway to pry a few more bucks from the fans already on hand in Daytona, and pick up a sponsor check from Budweiser.  And it’s cold outside, so settle back and enjoy.
   You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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