Race Weekend Central

Unlucky Seven: Drivers Who Must Ramp It Up In 2013

NASCAR is a sport driven by performance. What a driver accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, on the racetrack affects not only his personal gratification but his team’s — and even his sponsor’s — bottom line. Sure, some give more leeway than others, and some drivers are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt. But the bottom line is no different than that of any other employer. If a driver doesn’t live up to expectations, eventually, his job could be on the line, his failure trumpeted not just by his team but by others. Race fans can be brutal, the media can be even more relentless, and there are plenty of drivers in the garage holding pink slips and looking for work. Don’t overlook that personal desire to be competitive, either; sometimes, a driver’s worst enemy in trying to fix weeks worth of failure is himself.

From Crazy To Crazy Good: MWR Is A Contender Now

One year ago, people were wondering just how crazy Clint Bowyer was. Bowyer, who had three top-10 points finishes in six full seasons with Richard Childress Racing, had announced that he would leave RCR for a third Michael Waltrip Racing car in 2012. Not only was Bowyer facing an uphill battle by signing on with a brand-new team, he was making a move to an organization that had never had anyone finish higher than 16th in points throughout its existence. In fact, in those five years, the organization had just two wins, noted more for its failures (think: 2007 jet fuel disaster at Daytona) and its uncertain future. There were rumors of sponsors leaving, and even if they didn’t, MWR was considered capable of no better than middle of the pack — period.

Sprint’s Limits Mean Unlimited Falls Just Short

NASCAR and Sprint announced a brand-new format for the season-opening exhibition race formerly known as the Budweiser Shootout this week. The race, rebranded the Sprint Unlimited (an admittedly shameless plug for the cellular carrier’s unlimited data plans) will be similar to the old Shootout in its 75-lap, three-segment format, but from there what will happen is anybody’s guess.

Race fans will vote on everything from the length of each segment to the firesuit that Miss Sprint Cup will wear in Victory Lane (no, really). That includes a pit stop (or not) after the first segment, whether to eliminate the backmarkers after the second, and even how the field will be set.

Help From A Friend: How Casey Mears Is Saving Brian Vickers — And Himself

_Attention, NASCAR fans… welcome to Throwback Thursday! Every week, from now until the start of the 2013 season we’ll be giving you, our readers the favorite stories we treasure from our writers over the past few seasons. Today we focus on Amy Henderson, a former NMPA Award Winner and one of the site’s Managing Editors who shares some pieces near and dear to her heart._

_From Amy: I chose this piece just because it’s one of my favorites. I think this piece shows a side of Casey Mears, as well as of Brian Vickers and Jimmie Johnson, that people might not know about, which is something I like to do._

No Such Thing As a Bad Champion: Thoughts As the Offseason Looms

It’s hard to believe that the NASCAR season ends in just two days-it goes by so fast, and so much has happened since the engines fired in Daytona last February. Anticipation for the end of the title hunt is in the air, but so is the realization that the engines will be silent for the winter. A lot has happened this season, and, looking back, there are a few things that I’ve been thinking about this week as the season closes on a slightly anticlimactic note, with at least two of three championships all but decided before the teams even unload this weekend.

As Chase Ratings Fall, Can NASCAR Bring Back the Fans?

Eight weeks into the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup and amidst flip-flops in points and favorites, one thing has remained constant: TV ratings. And the numbers aren’t pretty. In seven of the last eight races, ratings have been down over 2011 by a significant margin.

To be fair, ratings fell in several races this year, but early on, the differences were by 100,000 viewers or so if they were lower. Now, the split is much wider, up to a million fewer people watching, and despite signing a fat contract with FOX, NASCAR should be worried-they haven’t re-upped with either TNT or ESPN for an extension, nor have they signed anything with a different network…and the more the numbers freefall, the more the value of a contract stagnates.

Polar Opposites Looking In the Mirror: Johnson and Keselowski More Similar Than First Glance

The path has been laid for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title to be decided between just two drivers in the last three weeks as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and first-time serious contender Brad Keselowski look to take it to the wire with just two points separating them from each other and more than 25 now between them and the rest of the pack. (Yes, there is the distinct possibility of disaster striking one or both of them in the last three races, but odds are, one of the two is going to hoist that silver trophy in less than three weeks.) Last year’s title was a similarly close one between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, and like that one this battle is one that seems, on the surface, to be between two drivers who are almost polar opposites in most ways.

Under Pressure: Is There Enough Urgency In NASCAR?

With just four races left in the season, four drivers have a realistic chance to win the title. For points leader Brad Keselowski, who holds a slim seven-point advantage over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, as well as for Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Clint Bowyer, the pressure to perform is intense, and it shows in the way the contenders have raced in recent weeks. Keselowski, Hamlin and Bowyer all have Chase wins, but it hasn’t been a Sunday drive for any of them. Playing the fuel strategy has bitten the group. Johnson backed the No. 48 into the wall last week, overdriving after a caution during a cycle of pit stops trapped him in the back of the pack. The Big One at Talladega hit them hard.

They’re racing with everything they have, every week.

Eyes On the Prize: NASCAR’s Coolest Trophies

There’s just something about Martinsville. NASCAR’s oldest track, on the schedule since 1949, has a certain ambiance that is missing at the high-banked, high-dollar speedways that take up the lion’s share of the schedule. The little track, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, seems to have been passed over by the sands of time.

But there is another reason why the drivers want to win at the little paperclip-shaped oval in the hills, and it’s not just bragging rights. It’s the trophy.

Since 1964, the speedway has handed out what is perhaps the most unique prize in motorsports, a grandfather clock, manufactured locally by Ridgeway Clocks. It’s worth a cool ten grand, but that’s not why the drivers want it. It’s different, a symbol of conquering what is still one of the hardest tracks in all NASCAR to master.

Oval Office: Friday NASCAR Observations From Charlotte

Well, it’s certainly been an eventful week. On and off the track, it’s been many things, but boring isn’t one of them. From a wild and crazy Talladega race that sparked heated debate about restrictor plate racing, to Kurt Busch in the headlines for more than just his change of rides, to the first Cup race without an Earnhardt in the field in 33 years, the stories just keep on coming, and in the background is a Chase that’s shaping up to be a three-horse race among a brash, outspoken new threat, a five-time champion, and a once-spurned rival. No matter which side of the fence you sit on, no matter which dog you have in the fight, it’s great to have so much to think about.

I live in the Charlotte area and have spent a beautiful autumn weekend at the track. Fall is a little bittersweet; while the end of the racing season is a needed break for all, it’s also a little sad knowing that it’s almost over. I’ve been busy this weekend, but I’ve also had time to think about a lot of things, from the big stories to the smallest ones…and here is a little bit of everything.

Earnhardt’s Absence Comes At the Wrong Time for NASCAR, But It’s Still the Right Decision

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. knew he didn’t feel right. Struggling with headaches in the days following a multicar crash at Talladega, Earnhardt finally had to admit that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the aches and pains a driver can feel for a few days after a hard hit, and deep down, Earnhardt knew it. “I knew that I didn’t feel (right)—you know your body and you know how your mind works, and I knew something was not quite right,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. The lingering headaches prompted Earnhardt to contact Dr. Jerry Petty, a Charlotte neurosurgeon who has worked with numerous athletes, including other drivers.

Possible 2013 Changes Could Be Step In the Right Direction for NASCAR

Teams continued testing of the 2013 Sprint Cup cars this week at Talladega Superspeedway and with it some optimism amid reports that NASCAR will allow race teams some test sessions at sanctioned tracks and that the sanctioning body is considering allowing teams some areas to work on the cars and dropping the controversial rule that locks the top 35 team in owners’ points into each race. All of these are very positive changes for NASCAR, and hopefully, race fans will respond by watching races on TV or in person, if for no other reason than to see if changes will make the competition more exciting, which is certainly something people are always hoping for.

For NASCAR, this is a big deal. A lot hinges on fans responding favorably to changes, possibly more than many casual fans realize. And in some ways, 2013 could be a defining season for the future of NASCAR.

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