Ryan: ‘Erase the Chase’ is an idea whose time had come

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CHARLOTTE – It was time to erase the Chase.

No, Monday’s announcement by NASCAR didn’t eradicate the 10-race stretch that has determined the champion of its premier series for the past 13 seasons. The structure remains largely untouched aside from a new wrinkle that carries over points from the regular season to ensure less arbitrary title outcomes.

But Monday did mark the death knell of what had become the primary pejorative in a NASCAR vernacular littered with unwieldy and unappealing terminology.

They are seemingly innocuous words that stoke the most hateful, negative and ugly reactions from passionate fans who claim precious ownership of racing like no other sport.

The Car of Tomorrow.

The top-35 rule.

The Chase.

Each of these terms, however well-intended, became the third rail for hyperbolic fan outrage on satellite radio and social media

And each of them now has disappeared into NASCAR’s dictionary dustbin of history.

The Car of Tomorrow was reconfigured and then renamed as the clever “Gen 6” car.

The top-35 rule essentially was erased and then replaced by the more benign charter system.

And now …

“I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a sly smile, “this is a great day for them.”

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Slapping a new title on a championship structure that has been maligned during its 13-year existent won’t be a cure-all for those who never have been fans of the format.

This admittedly is a PR and marketing exercise. It will have no impact on competition or the opinions of those who already believe the Latford points system of 1975-2003 shouldn’t have been abandoned.

There are Jeff Gordon fans who remain steadfast in their opposition to the Chase because they believe it cheated their hero out of multiple championships.

And there are others who actually will lament the disappearance of “Chase,” because they believe the term helped differentiate NASCAR.

But in an image-conscious sport desperate for corporate sponsorship, the switch to “playoffs” still matters even without an iota of on-track impact.

This isn’t a rebranding a la the Gen 6.

It’s about appropriating an existing sports term that carries major-league cachet.

The mere utterance of “Chase” became a dismissive rallying cry for many who hissed its name while railing about the system.

It’s harder to sound so disparaging when complaining about the “playoffs” (unless you’re Jim Mora). In fact, it sounds silly.

“Playoffs” are synonymous with indelible moments and must-see drama.

They connote an appealing sports conceit with an elegance and simplicity that always eluded “Chase”.

“When they’re talking about sports, people understand playoffs,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “We introduced a new word, i.e. the Chase, and we liked it at first, but when you really talk about it, when (Hendrick Motorsports president) Marshall Carlson is out talking to a sponsor, well, it’s ‘What’s the Chase?’  Well, it’s our playoffs.  And people immediately get that and they understand that.

“This is a big sport built on sponsorship for sponsors to understand, for fans to understand, and it’s a common word that most sports fans know.”

Some of us have been lobbying for ditching the Chase since NASCAR most recently overhauled it three years ago (and ratcheted up the action, intensity and pressure as a result).

But there always had been resistance to calling the Chase a playoff, despite how natural it seemed.

NASCAR heavily messaged the January 2004 news conference that introduced the Chase for the Championship. Reporters repeatedly were told by officials that “this is not a playoff” because “all of our events will continue to be Super Bowl-type races with 43 drivers competing.”

No one wanted to hurt the feelings of longtime fans asked to absorb a sea change that was antithetical to some core principles that were preached as gospel for decades.

There was major pushback on anyone who intimated that the Chase created two distinct seasons. When the Chase was introduced, NASCAR tirelessly emphasized there were no knockout rounds or points resets or anything analogous to how other pro sports handled their playoffs.

But things have changed. All that stuff has been happening in NASCAR since 2014.

There are eliminations. There are points resets (and still are with a few caveats). There is segmentation from the regular season.

It’s a playoff in every sense of the word – which is why the word changed.

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Starting lineups for the Can-Am Duel qualifying races

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Daytona 500 pole-winner Chase Elliott will lead the field to the green flag in the first of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who secured the No. 2 starting spot for the Daytona 500, will lead the field to the green in the second of the qualifying races.

Those races will set the rest of the Daytona 500 starting lineup.

Click here for Daytona Duel 1 starting lineup

Click here for Daytona Duel 2 starting lineup

With 36 spots guaranteed to charter teams, four teams are vying for the final two spots — Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler already secured two of the four spots for non-chartered teams in qualifying Sunday.

Those seeking to race their way into the Daytona 500 are Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, DJ Kennington and Timmy Hill.

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Where Are They Now? 1970 Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton

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Photo courtesy Daytona International Speedway
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It’s been 47 years but Pete Hamilton vividly remembers February 22, 1970 – the greatest day of his racing career – as if it was yesterday.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I necessarily expected anything grand to happen that day,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

Having signed just weeks earlier to run an abbreviated 16-race schedule for Petty Enterprises, the Massachusetts native found himself in the 12th edition of the Daytona 500, driving the No. 40 Plymouth Superbird with its renowned high rear spoiler.

While the pressure of driving for team owners Lee and Richard Petty and in the “Great American Race” may have made other drivers nervous, such was not the case for Hamilton.

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Photo courtesy Daytona Beach Morning Journal

In just the second Daytona 500 of his career (he finished 44th the year before), Hamilton was cool, calm and collected.

And it was those same attributes that led Hamilton to win NASCAR’s biggest race, beating the best of the best, including Petty, A.J. Foyt, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and David Pearson.

When Richard Petty’s engine expired just seven laps into the 500, Hamilton became the standard bearer for Petty Enterprises and he did not disappoint.

Having qualified ninth, Hamilton ran a patient and methodical race, slowly working his way up through the field. He led two times for four laps along the way until he got into a late-race battle with future NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.

Pearson had dominated the race, leading 82 laps across five different points, including laps 176-191. But Pearson and his Holman-Moody Ford could not hold off Hamilton, who led the final nine laps en route to victory lane.

“We had ran fast, and I think we ran a little faster than Richard, but I knew that I had a lot to learn,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

“By about three-quarters of the race, we were in third place, and then I passed Bobby Allison and got behind David Pearson and was able to pass him and take the lead. That was pretty damn thrilling for this Yankee boy.

“The last 20 laps or so, David and I fought our hearts out, slipping and sliding. We didn’t beat on each other, but we came damn close, and I was fortunate enough to get the best of that deal.”

The 27-year-old Hamilton, with a winning speed of 149.601 mph, beat Pearson by three car lengths, the only two drivers to finish on the lead lap. It was the fourth time Petty Enterprises had won the “Great American Race” in its 12-year history at that point (it would eventually win the 500 nine times, including seven by Richard Petty).

Remember, this was 1970, so there was no radio communication between teams and drivers. Even though he was the first to take the checkered flag, Hamilton wasn’t completely sure he had won.

So he did something unique in Daytona 500 annals:

“When I took the checkered flag, I made a decision at that point that I wasn’t going to let off. I was going to drive an extra lap just to make damned sure that I was the one in front,” Hamilton said with a laugh.

“That lap after the end of the race, I still was running wide open all the way around. Finally, when I got into turns 3 and 4, I began to slow down. It was a pretty thrilling thing.

“When I got into victory circle I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Maurice Petty was my crew chief. We had a big old hug and a big old happy time, along with all the guys that had worked on the car.”

The 1970 season would go on to be the best of Hamilton’s NASCAR Grand National career. He also won both races at Talladega that season, and won the 1971 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

All told, Hamilton made 64 Grand National starts, won four races, and earned 26 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes plus three poles.

He retired as a driver after the 1973 season and began building race car chassis. He also built a seven-building warehouse and office complex in suburban Atlanta that he still owns today.

Former champion Darrell Waltrip (seen talking on tv screen) addresses a gathering of Daytona 500 winners in 2005 including Pete Hamilton (left) and Bobby Allison. (Photo by Getty Images).

Now 74, Hamilton is retired and splits his time between Georgia and New England. While he hasn’t attended a NASCAR race since the 50th Daytona 500 in 2008, he said “I’m still an avid NASCAR fan. I watch the majority of the races on TV.”

Then he added with a laugh, “My wife tells me I watch the start of the race, sleep through the middle and then wake up for the end. I don’t know how the hell I wake up for the end, but I manage to see the end of most of the races. She winds up watching most of the race instead of my sorry ass.”

Hamilton will be watching the 59th Daytona 500 this Sunday, but don’t be surprised if his mind goes back 47 years at some point during the day.

“I have a very vivid memory of racing that day with guys like Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and David Pearson,” he said. “It makes you feel real good and proud of what we accomplished together.

“It wasn’t a ‘me’ thing, it was a ‘we’ thing. It took everybody that was on the car to make the thing really go. I was just the driver, the pilot.”

Let us know who you would like to hear about from the past and email Jerry Bonkowski at jerry.bonkowski@Nbcuni.com with your suggestion.

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Fans welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Daytona with open arms and high spirits

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With due respect to Chase Elliott for winning the Daytona 500 pole position, he wasn’t the main attraction for the few dozen fans gathered in victory lane after qualifying.

“Let’s go Junior! Whoo!”

“Go Dale!”

“Junebug!”

Finally a voice cut through the din with authority.

“Welcome back!”

Earnhardt, standing beside Elliott while posing for photos between their Chevrolets, lifted his Mountain Dew in tribute as the throngs heartily cheered.

“I had a real good time in the (TV) booth and just to be able to be at the track and be a part of it one way or another,” said Earnhardt, who helped call The Clash race on FS1 (Alex Bowman finished third in his No. 88 Chevrolet) before qualifying second Sunday in his official return to NASCAR. “It feels great. The fans have been super supportive throughout the whole process. I know there are a lot of folks happy to see us all back at the track. The team’s really geared up.

“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that. It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”

After missing the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will return to racing Thursday night in the second Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

Though he’s been in the car since Saturday, the 14-time most popular driver had made only single-car runs to prepare for qualifying.

Earnhardt admitted he is “antsy to get in the draft and get in some pack racing” when cars return to the track Thursday with a practice at noon.

“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” he said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with them guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.

“It’s a great little race car. Our backup car is great, too. You’ve got to kind of think about that backup car these days because there’s the potential to get your car tore up before you ever get it to the 500. We’ve got two great race cars and feel good about our opportunity come Sunday.

“We just hope we can get some time to work on our car in the draft and understand where the balance is (and) just whether we got the car handling where we want it.”

After winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, Earnhardt is anxious to punctuate his return with another victory. He admitted to being so competitive about his comeback that he was a tad disappointed to be knocked off the pole by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.

“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well … it means a lot.”

Long: Even in celebration, a hint of concern hangs over Hendrick Motorsports

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, is involved in an on-track incident during the weather delayed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — On a day when Hendrick Motorsports swept the Daytona 500 front row, the main topic was not how fast its cars were, but if they could make it 500 miles without suddenly darting out of control.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun by themselves off Turn 4 in the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt did the same thing at Talladega a few months later.

Sunday, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s blue-and-white Chevrolet snapped loose and turned its nose into the side of Kurt Busch’s car 17 laps into the Clash.

“It’s something I’m very concerned about and to see it again today adds to that anxiety a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said during the FS1 broadcast of the Clash.

Johnson was perplexed. He called his Turn 4 incident “bizarre,” saying his car was fine elsewhere on the track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, sought to quell any fears by downplaying Johnson’s incident.

“I feel it’s something that we can combat fairly easily,’’ Knaus told NBC Sports. “I’m not too concerned at all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything with Hendrick specifically.’’

Although Knaus is known as one of the mentally strongest people in the garage, his Jedi mind tricks couldn’t calm some of his teammates.

Earnhardt later said that his team was looking over notes from previous years to explain the spate of spins. Pole-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson admits he’s concerned after Elliott had spun in last year’s race.

What is unnerving for some at Hendrick Motorsports is that even with three days of practice before the Daytona 500, they won’t see enough cars on track to reliably ensure the car’s balance is correct.

With the qualifying races in cooler conditions at night, it doesn’t provide as good a gauge, especially with warm temperatures and a slick track forecasted for the Daytona 500.

The best time to prepare for those conditions is to practice during the day, but Earnhardt and Gustafson admit that won’t be helpful because many teams limit how much they run to avoid getting collected in a wreck and having to go to a backup car. Packs will be small.

“If you don’t have 20 cars (practicing together), you’re probably not going to get a great read on what your car is going to do,’’ Gustafson said. “You need to have 20 cars for more than five, six, seven laps at a time.’’

That’s critical because tires are starting to play a more important role. The track’s surface is wearing and that makes handling more important.

Without those large packs in practice, teams will have to rely on simulation and other engineering tools.

Even with those resources, Turn 4 has become the Bermuda Triangle for Hendrick Motorsports, a team which has one victory in the last eight restrictor-plate races.

“That exit of Turn 4 is tough,’’ Elliott told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely easy to get in a bad way and get bound up or get in a bad aero situation up off 4, and the balance is starting to become a factor here again, which is good news I think for the folks who sit up in those bleachers and the people who watch on TV.’’

Johnson and Knaus both speculated that track position played a role in the No. 48 car’s wayward actions. Johnson fell back in the pack before losing control of his car.

“I have to assume it’s relative to the height of the rear spoiler,’’ Johnson said. “When there’s less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it’s really easy to get the pressure off it and then the back just rotates around.’’

So what will have to be done?

“We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer,’’ he said.

If it was that easy, there wouldn’t be the concern for some at Hendrick Motorsports even as Elliott celebrated his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole and Earnhardt relished his return by starting next to his teammate.

Of course, those cars had run alone on the track Sunday. It’s when they’re around other cars that raises questions.

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