Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Fast Facts: 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Cook

credit: NASCAR Media
2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Cook has been both a competitor and a competition administrator in NASCAR – a dual career that has spanned six decades. Cook and fellow 2016 inductees Bobby Isaac, O. Bruton Smith, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Here are the Fast Facts on one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR’s oldest division.
  • Jerry Cook was born June 20, 1943 in Lockport, NY, but his family moved to Rome, NY early on in his life. He built his first Modified and became a car owner at age 13, eventually settling in behind the wheel himself in 1963.
  • Cook raced Modifieds and later Late Models on both asphalt and dirt, often racing nearly 100 races at more than a dozen tracks during a normal season. He went on to become a six-time NASCAR Modified champion (1971-1972 and 1974-1977). Cook also raced three times in the Syracuse 200 Big-Block Modified event at the New York State Fairgrounds, earning a career-best finish of second in 1972 to Buzzie Reutimann.
  • Cook’s chief rival during his racing career was another resident of Rome, Richie Evans, who broke up Cook’s championship reign in 1973 and went on to win eight straight Modified titles from 1978-1985.
  • Cook retired as a driver in 1982 after winning the track championship at Spencer (NY) Speedway and began working for NASCAR, where he was instrumental in developing what is today the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Cook took home 342 checkered flags in his career.
  • In addition to being named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and a NASCAR Hall of Famer for 2016, Cook is a member of three other Halls of Fame: the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1989, the New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame in 1993 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2009. He was named also the No. 3 driver on the NASCAR Modified All-time Top 10 list.
  • Learn more about the NASCAR Hall of Fame at www.nascarhall.com

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fast Facts: 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Terry Labonte

credit: NASCAR Media
2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee “Texas” Terry Labonte holds a rather dubious distinction as a two-time champion: his 12 years between titles is the longest by any Cup Series titlist. Labonte and fellow 2016 inductees Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, O. Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Here are the Fast Facts on one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers.
  • Terrance Lee Labonte was born Nov. 16, 1956 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Introduced to motorsports by his father, Labonte began racing quarter-midgets at age 7 and won a national championship at age 9. As a teen, he moved into stock cars on both dirt and asphalt, winning multiple track championships from 1975-77.
  • Labonte made his first NASCAR Cup Series start in 1978 at Darlington, qualifying 19th and finishing fourth. In 1979, he competed for Rookie of the Year honors against Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Joe Millikan; while he didn’t take the honors – those went to Earnhardt – he ended the season with 13 top 10 finishes and finished in the top 10 in points.
  • Labonte won his first Cup Series race in 1980 with Hagan Racing, taking the checkered flag in the historic Southern 500 at Darlington. In 1984, with a new sponsor in Piedmont Airlines, Labonte took wins at Riverside and Bristol on his way to his first Winston (now Sprint) Cup Series championship.
  • Over the next two seasons, Labonte dropped in points to seventh and 12th, respectively, parting ways with Hagan at the end of the 1986 season and joining Junior Johnson and Associates in the famed No. 11 Budweiser Chevrolet beginning in 1987. In spite of winning the All-Star Race in 1988 and finishing in the top 10 in points all three seasons, Labonte moved on to Precision Products Racing in 1990 and back to Billy Hagan’s Hagan Racing team in 1991.
  • In 1994, Labonte joined Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet, winning his second championship in 1996. Labonte was able to join his younger brother Bobby in a victory lap at the season finale at Atlanta, as Bobby won the race the same day Terry won the title. Labonte stayed with Hendrick Motorsports through 2006, racing his final two seasons on a part-time basis. He continued racing part-time through 2014, competing for Joe Gibbs Racing, Hall of Fame Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Petty Enterprises and others; his final race was the GEICO 500 at Talladega on Oct. 17, 2014.
  • In his career, Labonte won 22 races and 27 poles in the Cup Series, 11 races and four poles in the Xfinity Series and one race and one pole in the Camping World Truck Series. He was the 1989 International Race of Champions (IROC) champ and drove the final IROC race in 1993 in place of the late Davey Allison, giving him an assist on Allison’s title. Labonte won the Southern 500 in 1980 and 2003, the 1985 Busch Clash (now Sprint Unlimited) and was a two-time All-Star Race winner (1988 and 1999).
  • In addition to being named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, Labonte is also a member of the National Quarter Midget Hall of Fame, inducted in 1989, and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, inducted in 2001.
  • Learn more about the NASCAR Hall of Fame at www.nascarhall.com

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Rookie Stripe: What Happens During the NASCAR Offseason

2015 Sprint Cup Champion, Kyle Busch
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs  
NASCAR has one of the longest seasons in professional sports, with competitive races held about 75 percent of weekends each year. The season begins in mid-February at Daytona and runs until mid-November at Homestead-Miami. The drivers are used to it, but that sure is a lot of left turns.

Such a long season means that NASCAR’s offseason is relatively short, about three months. The time during the bleak months of winter when the rest of us are hibernating, chattering our teeth in the cold and typically grumbling about no NASCAR on TV, is when the teams go into overdrive behind the scenes. They’re traveling less, but working just as hard.

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Drag and shuffle
If staffing changes are going to happen on a team, it’s usually during the offseason. Just like any other sport, the composition of teams can be a constantly-moving puzzle from season to season. From pit crew to crew chiefs and more, teams always seek the perfect balance of players that will steer them toward a championship. The offseason is also the time when a driver will make an announced move between teams, such as Carl Edwards did when he went from Roush Fenway to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015. Clint Bowyer has already made public that he'll take the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet at Stewart Haas Racing in 2017, as 2016 will be Tony Stewart's last year in the Sprint Cup Series.

Medical tune-ups
The frenetic pace of the racing season means that scheduling extensive medical care and necessary surgeries are a challenge for many teams, who often opt to do them during the offseason. Denny Hamlin has already had surgery on his right knee since the season ended and 2015 Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch will need another surgery, which is scheduled for December 17. Busch took home the coveted series title at Homestead Miami this year even after a crash in Daytona that broke both his leg and foot.

Bill Heisel examines a patient.
Credit: OrthoCarolina  
According to Bill Heisel, director of the OrthoCarolina Motorsports program which oversees care for a number of NASCAR teams, having surgery during the offseason also allows the most time for recovery before the next season begins. More than 50 surgeries for the teams with which Heisel works with have been scheduled or already performed on pit crew, officials, and other team support personnel since the checkered flag flew at Homestead in November.

Fun and Games
For an offseason, that’s pretty busy. Surely our beloved drivers must get to have a little fun right? Here are some other things they might be up to:

· Doing normal things like drinking coffee. Landon Cassill has apparently already spilled his.
· Taking selfies. You’re a pretty good photographer, Kyle Larson.
· Playing chauffeur. To other drivers. That was very nice of you, Jamie McMurray.
· Trying out extreme sports. Don’t you need a hat in that cold, Austin Dillon?
· Being a fan and checking out other sporting events, like Ryan Newman.
· Indulging… or overindulging. Hey now, Jimmie.
· Getting married. Dale Jr.'s fans are holding their breath.
· Just taking some time with the family, ala Casey Mears.
As for the rest of us? We’re all susceptible to NASCAR Offseason Disorder (NOD), so just grin and bear it, and watch where you steer that shopping cart. No worries, though, they’ll be back on track in no time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Fast Facts: 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion Erik Jones

Jones visited victory lane in Texas on his way to the title
credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts & Scuffs
2015 Camping World Truck Series champion Erik Jones became the youngest champ in the series’ history after a close battle with runner-up Tyler Reddick. Learn more about his quick rise to fame in this week’s championship edition of Fast Facts.
  • Erik Jones was born May 30, 1996 in Byron, Michigan. He began racing quarter-midgets at age 7, and moved into stock cars at age 13. In 2010, he raced in the ASA Late Model Series, becoming the youngest winner of its Oktoberfest race at Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway. In 2011, Jones took home the series championship from the Champion Racing Association’s All-Star Tour as a rookie and won the Governor’s Cup 200 late model race at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, leading every lap of the race.
  • Jones became the first 15-year-old to race in the ARCA Racing Series in 2012; he raced in 10 of the series’ 19 races that season, finishing a season-best third at both Winchester Speedway and Berlin Raceway. He also won the prestigious Snowball Derby at Florida’s Five Flags Speedway in 2012, holding off Sprint Cup Series star Kyle Busch for the win; Jones won the Snowball Derby again in 2013.
  • Busch was so impressed by Jones that he signed him to run five Truck Series races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013. On Nov. 8, 2013, Jones became the youngest winner in NASCAR history when he won the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Speedway at 17 years, five months and eight days (that record has since been broken).
    Jones and his Truck Series boss, 2015 Cup Series champ
    Kyle Busch
    credit: NASCAR via Getty Images/Jared C. Tilton
  • Jones continued driving on a part-time basis in the KBM Toyota Tundra in 2014, winning three more races (Iowa, Las Vegas and Phoenix), and received his high school diploma at Texas Motor Speedway in June; Texas also marked his first race on a 1.5-mile track, as he had just turned 18. Jones also made his Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series debut for Joe Gibbs Racing at Chicagoland Speedway in July, registering three top 10 finishes in three races that season.
  • In 2015, Jones competed in all three top NASCAR series, winning the Truck Series championship on the strength of three wins and 20 top 10s in 23 starts. He also picked up his first Xfinity Series win at Texas, also winning later in the season at Chicagoland. Jones made his Sprint Cup Series debut at Bristol in April as a relief driver for Denny Hamlin, and made his first start at Kansas in May subbing for Kyle Busch; later in the season he subbed for Matt Kenseth at Texas and Phoenix.
  • Find out more about Jones at his website, www.erikjonesracing.com, and at the KBM website, www.kylebuschmotorsports.com

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Fast Facts: 2015 Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher

Credit: Jared C. Tilton / NASCAR via Getty Images
2015 Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 60 Ford Mustang for Roush Fenway Racing, is the cousin of 2012 Camping World Truck Series champ James Buescher. Learn more about this up-and-coming young driver in this championship edition of Fast Facts.
  • Christopher Buescher was born Oct. 29, 1992 in Prosper, Texas. Buescher raced motorcycles in Texas from ages 6 to 9, then switched over to Bandoleros around the state for three years.
  • In 2005, Buescher decided to give Legends cars a try, racing in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway and other tracks along the east coast, and winning at 22 tracks he visited that summer. Buescher continued to race in the Summer Shootout in 2006 and 2007, and also purchased a Late Model from David Ragan in 2007. He raced it four times and earned three top-five finishes.
  • Buescher spent 2008 racing in the ASA Speed Truck and ASA Late Model series, and signed as a development driver for Roush Fenway Racing in 2009. He made seven ARCA Racing Series starts with Roulo Brothers Racing in 2009 and eight in 2010, winning twice.
  • In 2011, Buescher was named ARCA Rookie of the Year, claiming three more victories for Roulo Brothers Racing. He also made two Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series starts, finishing 17th in both outings. In 2012, he won the ARCA Racing Series championship on the strength of four wins, 16 top 10 finishes and two poles.
  • Buescher raced part-time in the Nationwide Series for RFR in 2013 and full-time in 2014, earning his first win in the series at Mid-Ohio in Aug. 2014. Buescher kicked off the 2015 Xfinity Series season with a runner-up finish to teammate Ryan Reed at Daytona – a race Buescher failed to qualify for in 2014. He also made his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2015 in the No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports, racing six times with a top finish of 20th at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA in his first career start.
Chris Buescher at Texas Motor Speedway
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
  • Buescher won twice and picked up 20 total top-10 finishes on his way to the 2015 championship, the fifth Xfinity Series title for RFR and third in the last five seasons.
  • Learn more about Buescher in his bio at Roush Fenway Racing’s website, http://www.roushfenway.com/.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rookie Stripe: Why Jeff Gordon’s Retirement is a Big Deal

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs  
When Jeff Gordon first became a NASCAR driver, he made headlines as a trendsetter. As he retires at the end of the 2015 season, his story now becomes a legacy.
Gordon was just 22 when he won his first top-tier NASCAR race, edging out Rusty Wallace to capture the Coca-Cola 600 win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The year was 1994, not long after he’d made the tricky -- and at the time unusual -- transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars in November 1992. During Gordon’s 23-year career to follow, he would win four Cup championships (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001) and 93 races and go on to become one of the most well-known athletes of all time; a star not only in NASCAR but in the world of sports. And he spent his whole NASCAR career driving the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports.

Changing the standard of a sport

There are a lot of accomplished NASCAR drivers, so what makes Jeff Gordon so special? Prior to his start in stock car racing, NASCAR still had somewhat of a sub-par reputation in comparison to other popular sports in the United States. It was a peculiar enigma to much of America who didn’t totally understand the allure of driving in circles. Many drivers were older, even into their 50s, and most tracks were concentrated in the Southeastern United States. When Gordon came into the sport, things began to change.

“He definitely broke down a lot of those barriers. At that point in NASCAR, people (owners) were looking for an experienced driver to get in their car. When they were able to put in a young driver from the West Coast, or guys who were sprint-car drivers, it was against the way things had been done for a long time.” – Kevin Harvick, in an azcentral.com story by Michael Knight 

Gordon brought not only youth and movie-star looks to NASCAR, but a dexterity behind the wheel. He made NASCAR "cool," becoming its celebrity ambassador, drawing fans from across the nation and all walks of life as he appeared on daytime news and evening talk shows. When NASCAR ran at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1994, 350,000 fans showed up. His magnetism helped draw racers from all kinds of backgrounds, and large companies with sponsorship money to spend became keenly aware of this sport called NASCAR.
Gordon with Jay Pennell, who is a Fox
Sports reporter today.
Credit: Jay Pennell

Gordon wrote his own storyline, but really was an author of NASCAR’s as well.

“While his predecessors took a grassroots, Southern sport and made it a household name, Gordon took NASCAR places it had never been before. He made it cool to be a NASCAR driver and a NASCAR fan. Throughout his 22-year career, Gordon, a four-time champion, became NASCAR’s greatest ambassador, and no one has ever done it better. Not in any sport.” – Jeff Owens, Sporting News

A true track star

Beyond the glitz and luster that endures in NASCAR today, Gordon at his roots is a true racer, and he loves just being behind the wheel. Here are some other facts you should know about Jeffrey Michael Gordon:

· He started out racing quarter midgets
· Began racing sprint cars at age 13 in All Star Florida Speedweeks
· Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion
· Three-time Daytona 500 winner
· Five-time Brickyard 400 winner
· Nine road course wins, a record in NASCAR
· Has 12 restrictor plate race wins
· Has wins at every track on the NASCAR Cup circuit except Kentucky
· Seven-time winner at Darlington Raceway (1995, Spring 1996, Fall 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2007)
· 797 consecutive starts
· Ranks third in all-time wins

Beyond the Flag

As of November 22, 2015 Jeff Gordon will no longer drive a Cup series car, but he'll still be a part of the circuit as he moves to the Fox Sports anchor desk as a race analyst. He’ll also to work with his sponsor Axalta in the role of advisor and spend time with his charitable foundation that supports children with cancer, including the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital.

Some folks are Jeff Gordon followers and others aren't, but most race fans respect what the man has done as an athlete and for the sport. Jeff Gordon's NASCAR driving career may be complete but his story will be told for years to come.

Credit: Logan Stewart for Skirts and Scuffs  
"I think fear is what keeps us from going over the edge. I mean, as a race car driver, I don't think what makes a good race car driver is a fearless person. I think it's somebody that is comfortable being behind the wheel of something that's somewhat out of control." -- Jeff Gordon on Larry King Live, Feb. 23, 2004

More: Cheering for Jeff Gordon one last time

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Fast Facts: 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch takes a bow as champion
credit: NASCAR via Getty Images/Jared C. Tilton
And the Chase for the Sprint Cup goes to…Kyle Busch. It was a Hollywood-worthy finish to a whirlwind season that saw Busch out of action for 11 races with an injury, return to the track, become a father, qualify for the Chase and win a championship. Here’s a look at the new Sprint Cup Series champion, who also became a championship team owner on Friday night when Erik Jones won the Camping World Truck Series championship.
  • Kyle Thomas Busch was born May 2, 1985. He is a native of Las Vegas, Nevada and graduated a year early with honors from Durango High School in Las Vegas in 2002. His older brother is 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch.
  • Busch’s racing career started at age 13 in 1998 in the Legends Series at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Bullring, and he won 65 races and two titles between 1999 and 2001. He also raced Late Models at the Bullring.
  • Busch made his NASCAR debut in the Craftsman (now Camping World) Truck Series at age 16 in 2001. Due to a NASCAR rule change making the minimum age to race 18, Busch went back to race in the American Speed Association (ASA) in 2002, and also made his debut in the ARCA Racing Series.
  • In 2003, upon turning 18, Busch made his Busch (now Xfinity) Series debut with NEMCO Motorsports. He made his Cup Series debut in 2004, driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Busch spent three full-time seasons with Hendrick Motorsports before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
  • Busch was the 2009 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series champion, and his Kyle Busch Motorsports operation was the Truck Series owner’s champion in 2010 and 2013-2015; the team won its first driver’s championship in 2015. On Feb. 21, 2009, he became the first driver to win two national series events on the same day, and in August 2010, he became the first driver to win all three national series events in one weekend at Bristol. That season, Busch won 24 NASCAR events – three Sprint Cup, 13 Nationwide and eight Truck Series.
  • Always one to jump in a race car, Busch was competing in the Feb. 2015 season opener for the Xfinity Series at Daytona International Speedway when he was involved in a multi-car accident that sent him into a concrete wall with no SAFER barriers. Busch sustained a compound fracture of his lower right leg, a small fracture in his left foot and a sprained finger on his left hand, subsequently missing 11 Cup Series races, including the Daytona 500. He returned to action nearly three months later at the Sprint All-Star Race in May. In June, he won his first race of the year at Sonoma – the first of five wins on the season, including the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that resulted in the championship. Busch ended the season with five wins and 16 top-10 finishes in 25 starts.
  • Busch became a first-time father on May 18, 2015 as Brexton Locke was born to Busch and his wife, the former Samantha Sarcinella. The couple married on Dec. 31, 2010 in Chicago.
  • Find out more about Kyle Busch at http://www.kylebusch.com/, and more about Kyle Busch Motorsports at www.kylebuschmotorsports.com.
Kyle Busch celebrates with son Brexton and wife Samantha
Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images/Jared C. Tilton

Monday, November 23, 2015

Right Sides Only: Notes from Ford EcoBoost 400 and Sprint Cup Winning Crew Chief, Adam Stevens

Firsts are great things to celebrate. Parents celebrate their children's firsts: their first tooth, first birthday, first steps. Similarly, married people celebrate their firsts, too: first kiss, first anniversary, and first child, to name a few. How did Adam Stevens celebrate his first year as a Sprint Cup crew chief? He walked away with the title of champion.

In a Chase format that all but mandates the winner is the first to cross the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stevens could not have asked for a better ending to his first year as crew chief for Kyle Busch than to see his driver win not only the Ford EcoBoost 400, but also the series championship.

"I'd be lying if I said I had any idea what we've even accomplished this year. It's just been such a whirlwind year. You know, it was very compressed from the time that Coach and J.D. said, 'Hey, we need you to crew chief a Cup car,' maybe 16 or 18 months ago, and just so much work went into building the right team and getting the right guys together. A lot more work went into that than went into thinking about race cars," Stevens explained.

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
His first year was made even more difficult with Busch's multiple injuries sustained in the sport's opening weekend at Daytona last February. Busch, as you will recall, suffered a broken foot and a broken leg following an accident in the first Xfinity race of the 2015 season. He missed eleven races, and whether he would ever return to the driver's seat was a question that nearly everyone, except for perhaps Busch himself, seemed to be asking.

Busch persevered and returned to his team sooner than anyone thought possible. 

"We had such high hopes for the season and got off on a good start there early in Speedweeks, and then Kyle had his accident, and the wind was certainly taken out of our sails. I was just terrified that he was really, really in bad shape, but he saw his way back through that and got us on the right track, and thankfully we had a lot of help from Matt Crafton and David Ragan and Erik Jones and learned a lot in his absence, and were just ready for his return. He came back strong. So that's a testament to his hard work and dedication, and got us to where we're at today," Stevens said.

Stevens spent those eleven weeks trying to learn all he could about setting up the No. 18 Toyota according to how drivers like Crafton and Jones piloted the car. They were able to relay information to him in ways that Busch didn't.

In talking about the way he approached his position in Busch's absence, Stevens says, "We still have to advance, and we still have to make our program go forward, and we have to contribute to the success of JGR as a whole. The guys that chipped in, Matt and David and Erik, just did a tremendous job, and when you have somebody else in the seat, you get a different level of feedback, you get a different kind of feedback, and I think that helped us develop our setups and our notebooks in a way that maybe just Kyle driving wouldn't do. It has its pluses and its minuses. We didn't have the most top 10s or top fives to show for it, but we had a few, and we learned something every weekend we went to the track, based off their feedback and their experience, so that was huge for us to move forward and be ready."

Through a joint effort of Stevens' strategy and the feedback he received from the replacement drivers along with the sheer determination and talent in Busch, the team put together an impressive run of multiple wins once Busch was back in the driver's seat.

Knowing that NASCAR had implemented a medical waiver, making it possible for the team to be in Chase contention with at least one win and positioning inside the top 30 in points at the conclusion of the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond in September gave the team its marching orders.

Winning four out of five races during the summer months allowed the No. 18 team to fulfill the requirements set forth by NASCAR. They were able to qualify for each successive round of the Chase with great finishes throughout the nine weeks leading up to Homestead.

Stevens talked about how the team and his driver never gave up.
Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images

"One thing I know for sure, Kyle can find a way. Good or bad, he can find a way. We had speed.
"So then the Chase started, and it's about accumulating points and keeping your average finish up, and that was my mindset and our mindset going in. We weren't going to pass an opportunity for a win, but we were going to make sure we had the finishes and scored the points.
"And then we had that issue with the flat tire at Loudon, and it was on again. You know, we had to make sure we had a good finish. We were in a win-at-all-costs situation. So you kind of piece your way through the championship like that, making sure you get yourself in this position, and then you get to release the beast at Homestead, and that's what we got to do," Stevens explained.

Stevens admitted that he didn't give much thought to any adversity that might come their way once the Chase began, especially considering how Busch had overcome earlier in the year.

"I go back to all my dealings with Kyle, back from our Nationwide days, or XFINITY days, up and through before the Chase this year. I haven't seen that out of him. Whatever situation you put him in, he delivers. You know, the more I ask out of him, the more he gives me, and I knew if I had a plan, and I gave him a good car, we could always make it work.
"I think the Michigan deal was pivotal for me, too. I probably had some more conversations with him maybe in my own way. He maybe doesn't even realize it.
"But it is important to approach each weekend as a clean slate. You know, it's my responsibility to look a little bit further down the line and it's his responsibility to focus on what's in front of him, and I think he did that perfectly," Stevens said.

Busch must have thought that Stevens did his job perfectly, too. In his initial post-race comments, Busch excitedly called Stevens his hero. The pair has certainly had a heroic year together. They've overcome what could have been career-ending difficulties to become Sprint Cup champions. Not bad for their first year together, huh?


   Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    Her other interests include country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cheering for Jeff Gordon One Last Time

Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirt and Scuffs
I’ve never seen a NASCAR Sprint Cup race without Jeff Gordon in the field.

I’m not alone, though. Anyone who started watching stock car racing’s premier series in the last 23 seasons hasn’t either, so when the green flag flies at Daytona in February, we’re all going to be entering a new era together.

Fortunately, the process of getting used to watching racing without his familiar No. 24 Axalta/AARP Drive to End Hunger Chevy on the track will be eased somewhat by his presence in the Fox broadcasting booth, but I have to tell you, the first time I see Chase Elliott and his NAPA livery with the Number 24 on it is going to be jarring.

Seeing the taciturn young man climb into the car that’s never really been associated with another driver will, quite frankly, be difficult.

Sure, the No. 24 started 1377 races, but the 93 trips to Victory Lane were all with Jeff Gordon behind the wheel. The only other car number at the top of the all-time wins list to be as closely associated with one driver is the No. 43, but Richard Petty didn’t pilot it to all of its 199 wins.

The No. 11 has the most all-time victories with 206, but that car’s roster reads like a Who’s Who of NASCAR with names like Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Bobby Allison.

So to me, and to probably every other NASCAR fan, No. 24 is, and always will be, Jeff Gordon's ride.

Oddly enough, a driver named Cecil Gordon out of Horse Shoe, NC, piloted the No. 24 for 17 seasons, but he never won a race. He led only 23 laps in 443 starts, so it’s unlikely anyone would ever confuse the two Gordons.

But I digress.

Jeff Gordon watches the 24 skydivers saluting him
during pre-race at Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 8, 2011.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
Recently I wrote about Jeff’s Iron Man status. When he straps in today at Homestead-Miami Speedway he will indeed write another line in the NASCAR record book. Not only will he have started more consecutive races than any other driver, with 797 green flags, but he’ll have done so without missing a start in his entire Cup career, in the same car number, for the same owner, and with essentially the same primary sponsor.

Talk about setting the bar high. The only other active driver who might be able to say the same thing at the end of his career is teammate Jimmie Johnson with 504 starts. Johnson, whose No. 48 is co-owned by Gordon, took over second place on the all-time consecutive starts list when Matt Kenseth’s suspension broke his streak of consecutive starts. It will take over eight seasons of racing for Jimmie to overtake Jeff’s record.

Early in my tenure with Skirts and Scuffs, I wrote about how Jeff changed the face of NASCAR and how he earned my loyalty as a fan by dominating the first race (Rockingham) and the first season (1998) I watched racing. Everything I wrote then is still true now. Only the stats have changed.

I was a Gordon fan for 12 years before I started writing for Skirts and Scuffs. I cheered as he won his third and fourth championships, as he set road course records and plate race records. I was embarrassed when the fans at Talladega pelted his car with beer cans when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a rain-shortened race. I shook my head at his ex-wife’s machinations during their ugly divorce, and had my guts ripped out when Kurt Busch prevailed in the 2004 championship over Gordon and Johnson. Every season the Drive For Five was still alive.

As a writer and editor for a NASCAR Citizen Journalists Media Corps site, I’m not supposed to show favoritism toward any one driver. For the most part that rule hasn’t been too difficult to follow. (I will admit that when seeing Jeff Gordon in person nine times while representing the site at Texas Motor Speedway, the fan in me squealed inwardly each and every time.)

Since 2011, I’ve not publicly called any driver “mine,” not even when Jeff announced his plans to retire, not when he advanced through each round of the Chase, and not when he won at Martinsville to put him in contention for the Sprint Cup he covets so dearly.

Today, though, I’ll beg forgiveness as for just this one race, I’m going to set aside that impartiality and cheer unashamedly for the driver who showed me how much fun watching NASCAR could be. For just this one race, I’m going to fly my fan flag high as Jeff Gordon makes his last start in Sprint Cup racing and competes for one final championship.

When the green flag flies, I'll probably be a bit misty-eyed. And win or lose, when the checkered flag falls, I'll probably shed a few tears. Okay, maybe more than a few.

Nothing against Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr., mind you. Each has his own compelling story. To me, though, today belongs to Jeff Gordon.

Just one more time. For the good times.


LJ Cloud, aka Lisa or Janine, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track. A fifth-generation Texan, she began watching NASCAR in 1997, followed by almost every other form of motorsports from F1 to lawnmower racing.
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, beginning as a contributor, then became a media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
LJ's other interests include photography, writing, reading, natural health, history, and genealogy. She works for Family Tree DNA, a company that performs DNA testing for genealogical research

Friday, November 20, 2015

One More Time: Five Questions for Miami

Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images via NASCAR
It’s time to say goodbye to the 2015 NASCAR season.

To say it’s been a picnic would be an understatement. Retaliation, confusion and rules packages have marked the highs and lows, but it isn’t over yet.

This weekend’s races in Florida will try to put a ribbon on the past year, but I still have some questions. Will rain try to ruin our fun once again? Which drivers will become our new champions? It’s all here in Five Questions.

Let’s dive in one more time, shall we?

Is a repeat of Phoenix rain woes in the future? The race at Phoenix International Raceway left me feeling empty inside, and it’s all because of Mother Nature. IT RAINED IN THE DANG DESERT, AND I AM UPSET ABOUT IT. OK, now that I got that out of my system, it’s time to focus on Homestead-Miami Speedway’s forecast. It’s going to rain at some point during the weekend. We just need to accept that right now; it’s Florida, it rains, big whoop. NASCAR needs to have a game plan in place if the rain comes during this weekend’s events. I need to know they’re dedicated enough to dry the track into the middle of the night. I need to know we’re going to crown our three champions after three complete races. What happened at Phoenix Sunday night screwed with the championship field, and I’m OK with it to a degree. If NASCAR does the same in Miami, there will be major problems. Let’s hope they have a plan ready to go in case Mother Nature wants to crash Championship Weekend.

Who will prevail in the NCWTS battle? Erik Jones leads Tyler Reddick by 19 points going into Miami, and it’s coming down to the wire for both youngsters. Whoever wins will become the youngest NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. Jones has no NCWTS experience at the track while Reddick has one start—and one top 10. Which driver has the advantage? Neither; this is the first time these two are going for the title, and all bets are off. If I had to make a prediction, I say Jones wins the championship based on his ability to preserve his equipment. Despite this, it’s important to remember that anything can happen. Someone might blow a tire, the two might get into each other while going for the win, who knows?

Can Elliott—or another lurker—dethrone Buescher? Chris Buescher’s season has led to this final race, and the NASCAR Xfinity Series title is just within reach. However, he’ll have pressure from three opponents who want to take him down. You can put a blanket over Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon, and Regan Smith; they’re all within 24 points of first. Elliott said last weekend he needs Buescher to make mistakes to have a shot, and that’s the truth. However, the Roush-Fenway Racing driver has been solid all season. It’s a long shot that Elliott, Dillon, or Smith can capitalize, but it’s not completely out of the question. Those three will have to be on it in order to make the most out of any issues. Nevertheless, it’s bound to be a great battle.

With Kenseth back, will the rivalry rejuvenate? After serving his two-week suspension, Matt Kenseth is back in the No. 20 this weekend. Is there going to be more bumping and banging with Joey Logano at Homestead? Considering the fact that Kenseth met with Brian France the other day to basically hash things out, I’m thinking he won’t do any more provoking. Also, he’s on probation. However, that doesn’t mean Logano will let it go. The Team Penske driver has more important things to worry about, yeah, and owner Roger Penske is over the scuffle. That might be a storyline to watch in early 2016. My gut tells me this weekend will be uneventful on that front.

Which feel-good story will get its happy ending? All four championship contenders—Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.—are worthy of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Their regular season performances and results during the past nine races have put them in this position. They all have feel-good stories as well—Gordon’s final ride, Harvick trying to repeat his championship, Busch completing his post-leg-injury comeback and Truex winning it all after a tumultuous few years. Which driver will get to taste sweet victory? All signs are pointing to Gordon. He was fantastic in last year’s Homestead race until a late pit call derailed things. His demeanor during championship media day was relaxed and happy, meaning he isn’t stressed about the weekend. Gordon is just ready to race for the last time and see what happens. When I look at the four-time champion, I feel like he’s got one more trophy left in him. The title is completely up in the air, but my gut tells me the No. 24 car is headed into the record books one more time.

TV Schedule: Nov. 20-22

Kevin Harvick crosses the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway
in 2014. Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR
It all ends here.

The season comes to a close at Homestead-Miami. Three series, three new champions.

Four drivers - Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. - will battle it out for Sprint Cup champion. Who'll be hoisting the trophy at the end?

And we say goodbye to a legend. Gordon will run his last race in the Sprint Cup Series in the iconic No. 24.

The following is a handy guide to track events and television coverage at Homestead-Miami. All times are in Eastern Standard Time.

Friday, Nov. 20:
9 a.m. Camping World Truck Series final practice, FS1
Noon Sprint Cup Series practice, NBCSN
1:30 p.m. XFINITY Series final practice, NBCSN
4 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying, FS1
6 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Qualifying, NBCSN
7:30 p.m. NCWTS Setup, FS1
8 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200, FS1

Saturday, Nov. 21:
4 a.m. Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 (re-air), FS1
10 a.m. Sprint Cup Series practice, CNBC
11 a.m. XFINITY Series Qualifying, CNBC
1 p.m. Sprint Cup Series final practice, NBCSN
2:30 p.m. XFINITY Series Ford EcoBoost 300, NBC

Sunday, Nov. 22:
1:30 p.m. NASCAR America Sunday, NBC
2 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Countdown to Green, NBC
3 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400, NBC
3 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Championship Second-Screen Experience, NBCSN
7 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Post-Race, NBCSN
8 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lap, NBCSN
10 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane, FS1. Re-air at 3 a.m. Monday.
11:30 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lap (re-air), NBCSN

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Championship-Contending Crew Chiefs

Forty-three teams will roll into Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend for the Ford EcoBoost 400. Of them, four teams will vie for the coveted Sprint Cup trophy. Only one will emerge victorious. All eyes will be on the driver of the winning car. Few realize that NASCAR is, in fact, a team sport. The team captain is the crew chief, and he'll have almost as much responsibility for the win as the driver will.

Throughout this season, this column has provided you with individual race details as told from the perspective of the winning crew chief. This weekend, four of the crew chiefs from whom you've previously heard have the opportunity to become champions.

Those four crew chiefs sat down this week to discuss the weekend ahead.

Perhaps no other team has had to overcome as much adversity as the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota team led by crew chief Adam Stevens. With so much success during the summer months, it's easy to forget that Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season because of injuries he sustained in an accident during the Daytona 500 weekend in February.

"Well, it's been a wild year, starting with Kyle's accident. That's not something that any of us had planned or prepared for, and it was such a devastating crash that none of us knew if he was going to recover this year at all, and certainly what state he would come back in.
"But due to his perseverance and determination, he was able to get back in a time schedule that was even not predicted by his doctors, you know, and certainly not predicted by any of us on the race team, and get himself in a spot where he at least had the potential to score enough points to get Chase eligible.
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

"You know, we started off with high hopes putting the team together in the off-season and wanting to be in this position, and then before we even left Daytona, that was all taken away from us. So to battle back from that and all the wins that we've had along the way and good runs in competitive cars is remarkable at this stage," Stevens explained.
Stevens also discussed his primary concerns for championship weekend.

"The weather is always a constant worry. You know, if you don't know if you're going to get practice on Saturday, it'll really affect how long you stay in race trim or how quickly you swap to qualifying trim on Friday. You know, that could have major bearings on the weekend, so you're always keeping an eye on the weather, which is tough to do in southern Florida.
"And as far as the general history of the race and concerns I might have, you know, if you look at the caution history, there were a ton of cautions last year, and guys really went through their tires quickly. And now that we are -- there's a hard limit basically on the tires, you could put yourself in a spot where you run out of tires, and it would be very easy to do. But you never know when they're going to have a long green flag run, and if you're coming off a ten-lap run and you elected not to put tires and then it goes 60 or 70 laps green, you're going to be in bad shape.
"You know, tire usage on a track that has a lot of tire falloff is always a concern, and in looking at the caution history, I don't think that it's as cut-and-dry. You go to a lot of places, you're going to have a lot of cautions, but we've seen Homestead with very few cautions or very many cautions, so it's really hard to say how that's going to shake out.
"But as a crew chief, those are two things that you don't want to be on the short side of. You don't ever want to run out of tires and you don't ever want to be caught by surprise by a late race caution," Stevens said. 

The pairing of Martin Truex Jr. with crew chief, Cole Pearn, has been wildly successful this year. In their first year together, the pair has logged one win and a chance to walk away with the series' top prize.

"Yeah, it's been a pretty successful year, obviously, to this point, and we're definitely pleased with the progress we've made. But again, you know, we're down with one race to go, to race against three other guys, and we're just ready to make the most of it and hopefully come out with a championship," Pearn said.

Pearn also discussed the potential for weather-related delays in south Florida.

"Between myself and three other engineers, we really monitor different forecasts, different radars to try and stay up on it. I think everybody got thrown for a little bit of a loop this past weekend in Phoenix, but obviously south Florida weather is very humid and easy to have pop-up showers at any point. I think when we tested there a couple months ago, we pretty much, I think over a whole day, only got about four hours of running in just because of the sporadic weather conditions during the day. I think we definitely have to be prepared for that, but again, everyone is in the same boat, so I think you just prepare the best you can and deal with whatever comes," Pearn said.

Canadian-born Pearn also had another weather issue en route to Florida: the snow in Denver where Furniture Row Racing is based.  

Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
"Yeah, we had planned to really leave Monday night, but just with the workload, I don't think the truck got loaded until about 2:00 on Tuesday and we kind of had a little bit of time because we had I-70 and I-25 both shut down out of Denver. It definitely made it a little tighter, tighter timeline for the truck drivers getting out, and they've been plugging away, though. They're making good progress now. I think they're running about 40 miles an hour on ice for pretty much most of Kansas, but I think they're starting to make good headway now," Pearn said.

Pearn also talked about the adversities with which Truex Jr. has dealt this year.

"Well, I think that's sometimes what happens when things kind of turn against you in life and you kind of hit the bottom a little bit. You definitely look around and you find the positives, and at the end of the day you still have to get up every day. I think that perspective of having to get up every day and make the most of it has definitely been the change you've seen in him. Or even if we do have a bad day or whatever, he keeps the big picture in mind and keeps everybody positive most of the time, and that's been a huge pleasure to have around and really been a positive thing for our team.
"I think on the relationship between me and him, it's just easy. We're very focused people but we're very relaxed in the same sense, and having to work together with somebody like that just makes it really simple," Pearn explained.

One crew chief anxious to see the green flag wave is the reigning Cup champion chief, Rodney Childers.
"It's definitely exciting for sure. You know, I feel like we've had a really good season. We've had fast cars all year, and just everybody on the team is doing an excellent job at the shop and all the guys at the chassis shop and the engine shop at Hendrick, also. You know, it's just been a fun season, and we look forward to the opportunity of going down there and at least having a shot at it and being able to do something special. You know, any time you can make that Final Four with this new format, it's pretty special," Childers said.

Not everything about Homestead, despite their race win there last year, excites Childers.

"You know, you always fight the same things at Homestead. Everybody is really loose off the corner, under the throttle, and we just never could get anything to work the way that we wanted it to. Yeah, we got it better as the weekend went on, but it definitely wasn't perfect. We went back to test down there not long ago and didn't get much accomplished at all. It rained half the time we were there and it ended up raining out almost the whole test.
"We just need to do some things better than what we did last year and try to get a little bit more rear grip in the car on the exit of the corner.

"Well, you're not really figuring anything out for this weekend because you can't predict the future and you don't know how many cautions there's going to be this weekend.
Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
"But last year there was definitely a lot more than what we had had in previous years. You know, if you lay out the last five seasons in the race down there, there's really no comparison on how many we had last year. But you've got to be smart with your tires and make sure that you don't run out before you want to at the end and that kind of thing, but everybody knows that the pace falls off a lot down there and tires are important.
"If you think you want to save a set and everybody else pits and then 20 laps later you're a lap down, it puts you in just as bad of a spot as if you're running out of tires at the end. You've got to be smart about it and just do the best job you can and hope that it works out for yourself," Childers explained.

As the current champions, Harvick and Childers are excited about the possibility of winning consecutive championships.

"When I sat at his [Harvick's] house and we met and talked about doing this, that's what we both said is we wanted to be in a position where we could race for a championship, and not only for one year but do it for multiple years and keep things going and that kind of thing.
"I think just having that attitude from the beginning has been one of the best things for our race team. It's not just me and him that want it, it's the entire team, and it's I think what separates our team from a lot of others. I mean, you've got to have 100 percent of the people wanting it as much as you do, and we've been very fortunate to have that so far.
"You know, it's a lot of fun going to the racetrack these days, and hopefully we can keep it going," Childers said.

Perhaps no other story has captured the collective hearts of NASCAR fans this season than the pending retirement of the man who changed the face of the sport in the modern era. 

Jeff Gordon will take his final turn behind the wheel of the famed No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet this weekend in his bid for a fifth Cup championship. Crew chief Alan Gustafson will be there to call the shots for him for 367 laps.

"You want to win a championship; you want to be a champion. That's what you compete so hard for in this sport. The fact that it's Jeff's last year, somebody who has been a huge part of the sport with a tremendous amount of success and been such a great advocate for the sport, but a huge part of our company and our success of our company and a huge supporter of us for so long. I mean, that's extra added incentive obviously to send him out on top as we believe he deserves, and we're working hard to do that. It's a really huge moment for us, and we're excited about it," Gustafson said.

With the media attention Gordon will receive this weekend, how will Gustafson handle his responsibilities while still allowing his driver the freedom to do interviews and and photo opportunities?

"Yeah, he does have a lot on his plate. I think being able to clinch in Martinsville has helped that out because he can get some of that stuff out of the way, and we wanted to make sure when on-track activity was going on or anything around that, he had as limited obligations as possible.         
Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs

"He's very much on board with that. It's not something that I had to tell him. It's something that he was very much on board with and that he wanted to do, also, and when it comes down to the on-track that there's no interruption there. He manages his stuff really well. Of everybody I've been around in my life, he's the best at it, and he knows how to manage it and not let it influence his racing, and this is probably going to be his toughest task when it comes to that. But you know, we typically have our weekly time with Jeff, which we've had this week, even though he wasn't able to be here on Tuesday, which he typically is. He was here today [Wednesday], and we were able to speak to him on the phone Tuesday at length. He's very attentive and very much involved with what we need him to do, and his staff take care of that, so it's worked out well," Gustafson explained. 

Though Gordon is in pursuit of his fifth Cup trophy, a win would be Gustafson's first.

"It is a big thing for me.  It's a career goal and something that I want to do and have aspirations to do and think it would be a huge thing for me in my career to win a championship. It's been my goal my whole career. On another side note, not really a side note, but I've been in this building, the 5/24 shop for 11 years since its inception, and that's been the goal for me in this building, also, to win a championship out of this building, and we've come close but haven't been able to do that. So we're very aware of that, and it's a huge thing for us, and it's why we work so hard and why we dedicate so much time and why we do everything that we do is to win a championship and be champions. That's the end result, that's the end goal. That's what we're trying to do, what we've tried to do for a long time. If we could do that, that would be huge. It would be a big thing for myself in this building, and I think it would set a nice culture or legacy standard, whatever you want to call it, to propel us into the future with Chase.
"So yeah, there's a lot of things, a lot of huge, big things on the line for us," he said.
"As far as enjoying it and opportunities, absolutely, you're right. It's never guaranteed. You never know if you'll get a chance to be back in this position again.  You never know what the future holds, and this is a special opportunity.
"I just enjoy competing and being involved in it. That's really what's fun for me, what I'm passionate about. So just going through the act of it is very enjoyable for me, and the preparation of the car and the interaction with the team and all the things that go along with a situation like this where you have a heightened sensitivity and this heightened awareness. I really enjoy that, so that's kind of the fun for me.
"You have to really appreciate it, and you want to be aware of your surroundings and kind of take it in, but at the same time you want to stay focused on the goal. It's been fun to do. It's been an enjoyable week, and looking forward to getting to Homestead and seeing what happens and seeing how it transpires and working through it good or bad and trying to put ourselves in the best position possible. That fight is what I so much enjoy, and I'm looking forward to that," Gustafson said.

We're looking forward to it, too. Be sure to tune in Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC for coverage. 

   Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    Her other interests include country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.

NASCAR Fantasy Fusion: Season Finale at Homestead-Miami

Track Classification: Intermediate
Similar Tracks: Atlanta Motor Speedway • Charlotte Motor Speedway • Chicagoland Speedway  Darlington Raceway • Kansas Speedway • Kentucky Speedway • Las Vegas Motor Speedway
New Hampshire Motor Speedway • Texas Motor Speedway
Distance: 1.5 Miles

Drivers with Most Top 10s (Last 5 Years):
By Race
Kevin Harvick - 5
Both with 4 - Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth
All with 3 - Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon 

By Track
Both with 4 - Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick 
All with 3 - Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin

Recent Pole Winners:  
2014 Jeff Gordon
2013 Matt Kenseth

The Likely Suspects: This season has been full of drama, from Kyle Busch's injuries in the first Xfinity race to the Joey Logano controversies toward the end. I wonder what this season-ending race will bring? Look for these drivers to run well on Sunday: Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon,  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin.

My 2 Cents: For the second year in a row my no-brainer pick at Homestead is a tie between Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth -- for you that is. I'm out of Kevin Harvick starts so I will have Jeff Gordon on my team. Again, I have no Martin Truex Jr. starts left, but if you have one, go for it. I'm going with Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne. I will complete my team with Danica Patrick and Ty Dillon. 

My final four: Matt Kenneth, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Danica Patrick.

Points to ponder:
  • Roush Fenway Racing leads the series in wins at Homestead with seven, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing with five.
  • Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick lead the series in top-10 finishes at Homestead with 12 each, followed by Jimmie Johnson with nine.
  • Kevin Harvick has the highest average finish at Homestead with a 7.5. Only two other drivers have an average finish inside the top 10: Carl Edwards (9.1) and Martin Truex  Jr. (10.0).
  • Five of the 16 (31.3%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Homestead have been won from the front row: two from the pole and three from second place.
  • About two-thirds (11 of the 16) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Homestead have been won from a starting position inside the top 10.
Will Kevin Harvick score his second championship or will we crown a new champ? In either case we're sure to see an amazing season closer. Enjoy the race! Post your comments here or follow me on Twitter at @purplecatpr.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Faith on the Frontstretch: A Rain Delay, a Fake Snake and the Final Checkered Flag

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in the rain on pit road at Phoenix International Raceway, Nov. 15, 2015.
Credit: Jonathan Ferry / Getty Images  
“ ... and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” ~ Hebrews 12:1b

Sunday’s winner at Phoenix was a fan favorite – non-Chaser Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- although the event itself was anything but favored. Rain-soaked at both the beginning and the end, the day was full of twists and turns, which ultimately decided the four Chasers who will vie for a championship next weekend.

Earnhardt Jr. claimed victory in the soggy race, not as the checkers flew, but as he sat at the front of the field on pit road, with raindrops pelting his roof. Just like most people’s everyday race of life, his day was a mix – the good, the bad and a dash of goofy.

The “good” was getting a victory, but it was also the qualifying spot that led to the perfect pit stall.

“You know, we had a really good qualifying effort,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We struggled all year in qualifying, and that was really the difference maker for us today. It gave us this awesome pit stall that was just right next to the start‑finish line.”

When he was one of the first cars to pit under green, a yellow flag came out and the pit stall came into play, allowing him to cross the finish line ahead of the field and be scored as the new leader.

The “bad” element of the day was obvious -- the rain -- which muddled things from start to finish.

The “goofy” was a faux rattlesnake coiled up in the No. 88 cockpit before the race. Earnhardt Jr. said the No. 22 team pulled the fake-snake-on-the-seat prank, but one of his crew members disposed of the rubber reptile before he could be scared by it.

Despite the rain and the rubber snake, the race ended well for Earnhardt Jr. with NASCAR calling the race quickly after the rain began, since radar showed continued precipitation over the track.

The Phoenix race had a clear-cut ending. The rain came, and it was over. But in the real race of life, the ending is a mystery. No one knows when his or her checkered flag will wave. We feel safe sitting in our cockpits of life, secured by seatbelts and safety nets -- our nice homes with security systems, our bank accounts and IRAs and health insurance. But this world is unsafe and unsecure, with no guarantees that we will see tomorrow.

When your race of life ends, worldly trophies will be as meaningless as fake rattlesnakes. There is only one thing that will matter when you cross the finish line: whether or not you know Jesus Christ as your Savior.
The checkered flag flies at Phoenix, Nov. 14, 2015.
Credit: Robert Laberge / NASCAR via Getty Images

Like the end of any race, once the checkered flag flies, it’s over. Death is final, friends. If you’re not sure where you’ll go when you leave this world, it can be terrifying. But when you know Jesus, that fear is gone. If you accept Jesus into your heart, will you still worry about the possible bad stuff leading up to your death, like sickness or pain? Of course – it’s only human to have anxiety about the unknown. But if you know Jesus, you can face what comes after death with peace, knowing your soul will take a trip to the ultimate Victory Lane – heaven.

The Chase is winding down and soon we’ll see the final checkered flag of the season. What if the end of your race of life is almost here, too? You might see it coming, like Dale Jr.’s win under rainy skies. Or your life could end without warning, and you’d cross the finish line in a split second.

Are you ready for your final checkered flag?

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. ~ John 3:16 (NKJV)

“Faith on the Frontstretch” explores the role of faith in motorsports and runs every 1st & 3rd Wednesday of the month during the NASCAR season. Follow Beth on twitter at @bbreinke.

Want more racing devotions? When you donate $25 to Skirts and Scuffs, we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Beth’s book, Race Fans’ Devotions to Go, a month-long, pocket-sized devotional book for NASCAR fans. Or you can purchase the book in paperback & ebook here.