Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jimmie wins again and other news nuggets

Nothing like an off week to mess with the blogging clock, but it's time to get back into the groove.

Not only did we return to the racing grind after a rainy weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, but we had breaking news flying all over the place that will have big impacts on NASCAR for a long time to come.

The opening of this post is easy and a bit ho-hum. After all was said and done and the rain finally decided to stay away, Jimmie Johnson was his winning self again Monday at Bristol. He rolled to the win at the Food City 500, his second in a row and 82nd of his amazing career.

The scoring system doesn't matter. The racing surface doesn't matter. Mother Nature's cruel twists don't matter, either. Johnson just keeps on going.

After rain washed out qualifying, Johnson had to start 11th, a place where race winners at Bristol don't usually come from.

Again, it didn't matter.

Kyle Larson led the first 202 laps. Johnson didn't lead for the first time until lap 394. The 48 only fell out of the lead off pit road twice the rest of the way, but Johnson overtook Kevin Harvick with 21 laps to go and pulled away from a battle for second place between Clint Bowyer and Harvick that Bowyer eventually won.

But in the bigger picture, the only thing that may stop Johnson's assault on the record books is Johnson's health, both mental and physical. Over the last five years (2012 through 2016), the 41-year-old is consistent in his checkered flags won -- five, six, four, five and five.

At the rate he's going, we may be talking about Johnson joining Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 100-win club by 2020. In his 16 full-time seasons in NASCAR's top series, the El Cajon, California native has never had less than two wins a year.

And he only did that once, in 2011.

I've seen several social media postings from a lot of fans who can't stand what Johnson's done in his career. But the bottom line is when he hangs up the helmet, he'll be clearly penciled in among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.

Before we could really digest Johnson's win, the bigger bombshell came Tuesday when Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man who's only been voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver 14 years running, shocked us all by announcing his retirement Tuesday.

It was a jaw-dropping moment for most of the fan base, but the whole sport will be impacted by his move.

Considering how it all came together, it's not surprising.

For those who may have been hiding in a cave, Earnhardt had to sit out the second half of the 2016 season to heal from a concussion. It stunk for all of us, but he did his time and returned to full health in time for the start of this season.

While there haven't been any additional effects from the concussion, Junior Nation hasn't had a whole lot to cheer about through the first eight races.

After finishing fifth at Texas two weeks ago -- the best run for the 88 so far -- an early crash took Earnhardt out at Bristol and he finished 38th. He's 24th in points, averaging a 24th-place finish, and has led eight laps, all at the Daytona 500.

That's gotta give pause to any driver, no matter how healthy he is. If you're not competitive, it's time for a reassessment of everything.

Junior will be 43 in October. He just got married. He has his health back, and I'm sure he wants to keep it and go out on his own terms.

That's certainly not a bad thing. It's awful for the fans, but the sport will survive.

We've had several retirements from big names over the last three seasons. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and now Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The total excellence on the resumes is stellar. Gordon had 93 wins with four championships, Stewart had 49 with three titles, Edwards won 28 times and Junior has 26 to date.

That's 196 victories and seven titles to leave the sport. They can't stay forever.

When legends like Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Richard Petty stepped out of their cars, the world didn't collapse. We still had our races, and the popularity went south for a time before a new crop of drivers came in and went to work.

We're in a similar cycle right now, like it or not. In a sport where it's not normally an option, time and patience will be of the essence so the next crop of stars can leave their mark on the hearts and souls of the most passionate fans in all of sports.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 10, 2017

As Miller says goodbye, a piece of me goes with him

The following disclaimer is for those of you expecting me to take another trip around the world of racing. What I'm about to share here contains no mention of racing or racers whatsoever.

With that said, please stay and read the following tribute. My heart needs this moment because I'm all about more than just cars that go around in circles at insanely fast speeds.

I'm also about writing (hence this blog), plus the joy of broadcasting as well.

It was a sad time for me this weekend as legendary Los Angeles Kings play-by-play man Bob Miller hung up his headset after 44 amazing seasons and two Stanley Cups (2012, 2014). While most sports fans with any degree of knowledge may have seen Miller as the third wheel of voices for Los Angeles teams behind the late Chick Hearn (NBA's Lakers) and Vin Scully (Dodgers), his approach and style was basic, strong, and to the point.

First it was Scully that said goodbye last year, now Miller. The more things change, the more we need to celebrate what's left behind. In case you missed it (and you probably did), Miller got to call an overtime winner that helped the Kings beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the home finale Saturday night.

For me, I have more than just Miller's voice on TV (and radio in simulcast in the earlier stages of his career) to thank. Bob Miller also taught me the challenges and joys of calling games of any sort through Sportscaster Camps of America, which was a two-day workshop I attended in Los Angeles in 1990 and 1991.

Yeah, I'm getting up there, too.

He was gracious, friendly, and always helpful. And I turned that knowledge into working as a print journalist. Funny how life works.

To that same end, my career as one of the ink-stained wretches took me to covering the San Jose Sharks for four years in the early 2000s. Miller received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame for his excellence in 2000, and I had the privilege of sitting down with him for an interview that I published as a tribute in the Vallejo (Calif.) Times-Herald the following season.

I can remember carrying several copies of the printed column I wrote and I did the handoff from our press perch at HP Pavilion to then-Kings PR man Mike Altieri (I could be wrong on the name). He had to pass them on because Miller wasn't able to attend that day's game against the Sharks due to prior family commitments.

I got a thank-you e-mail from Miller himself a few days after. He did my heart good, even if I went into print journalism instead of broadcasting.

That's part of why Sunday was a sad day. I choose to celebrate Bob Miller's excellence as a broadcaster, but more importantly as an all-around outstanding human being.

Miller is living proof that as long as you're living your dreams, you're guaranteed to never work a day in your life.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Johnson rules Texas again

As things unfolded Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, there were enough unknowns brought on by a new pavement and reconfiguration that would even baffle Sherlock Holmes.

Even with all the wonder and worry about how the drivers would handle the new surface, Jimmie Johnson proved there's no substitute for experience.

Johnson earned another six-shooter and cowboy hat after his impressive performance in winning at Texas. Not only was it his seventh victory at the track, but it was the 81st of his amazing career.

The legend is growing, probably along with the love-hate relationship most race fans have. It's clear when the numbers get broken down how special Johnson is right now in NASCAR history.

-He has 81 wins in 550 career starts. That's one every 6.8 times Johnson gets in a race car. 

-He hasn't won less than twice in any of his 17 seasons in Cup. His last five years have had five, six, four, five and five checkered flags.

At this rate, it's likely Johnson will pass Cale Yarborough (83), Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (both 84) before the end of 2017. That only leaves Jeff Gordon's 93, David Pearson's 105, and Richard Petty's untouchable 200 on the career wins list.

Oh, and Johnson doesn't turn 42 years old until September. Depending on how his health holds out, joining Pearson and Petty in the century win club may be a serious talking point within the next five years.

Right now, Johnson is averaging five wins per year, so you do the math.

And the winningest active driver behind Johnson right now? Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have 38 victories through Sunday's race at Texas. That's how much he's head and shoulders above everyone else.

Call him vanilla, call him too corporate for your taste, but just don't call Jimmie Johnson late to Victory Lane. When his career is all said and done, it'll be one every fan -- hater or not -- can step back and appreciate.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Gray makes history with NHRA win at Vegas

In a slight departure (OK...a big one) from what normally gets done around these parts of the blogosphere, it's time for me to clean out my notebook from the NHRA's DENSO Nationals stop that happened Sunday at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

For starters, the hot-rod, straight-line fans got a moment to savor when Tanner Gray became the youngest winner in NHRA history.

And the crowd asked..."how young is he?"

Tanner Gray is 17 years old. He's still two weeks shy of his 18th birthday (April 15), and he went out and piloted his Pro Stock car to one of the more awesome race victories in recent memory.

I've been covering drag racing since 2006, so that gives you a bit of an idea.

Gray didn't beat just anyone along the way after qualifying fifth for the final eliminations on the warmest day of the race weekend. He got by Summit Racing teammates Greg Anderson (quarterfinals) and Jason Line (semifinals) -- who are 1-2 in the current Pro Stock standings -- to get his chance at history.

Thanks to a near-perfect reaction time off the starting line (.010), Gray denied Bo Butner his first career win on a hole shot (Gray crossed in 6.681 to Butner's 6.678 with a .088 RT) and made history as the youngest winner of the NHRA Wally trophy.

Against Anderson in Round 2, Gray's reaction time was even better at .001.

The amazing part through all the excitement: Gray still has two more months of online course work before he graduates from high school.

Such is a racer's life. When you make a dream come true at that young an age, it only gets better from here. Well done.

-As for Sunday's Monster Energy Cup race at Martinsville, the STP 500 gave NASCAR's new stage-racing format another huge boost for the excitement level.

Case in point came at the end of Stage 2. With Kyle Busch leading, he was caught in race traffic as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. battled to stay ahead and on the lead lap.

When Stenhouse nudged Busch up the track -- not enough to cause a problem other than the one that blew up in Busch's brain -- it was the gift Chase Elliott ran with to take the Stage 2 win and the playoff point that goes with it.

Afterward, Busch sounded off. We shouldn't have expected anything less.

Busch claimed he was trying to be nice to Stenhouse.

“I actually was rolling into Turn 3 and was kind of going higher out of my way in order to let (Stenhouse) back by and give him the lap,’’ Busch said in an NBCSports.com story written by Dustin Long. “That was my intent. He just drove through me. Cost me my spot to (Elliott). I was hoping I could run off the corner side by side with (Stenhouse) and keep (Elliott) at bay and keep my nose in front of his and be able to score the segment. I was trying to be the nice guy but nice guys don’t finish first.’’

Stenhouse's take on the matter from the same story:

“I got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of,’’ he said. “I had to stay on the lead lap. That was a turning point in the race. If (Busch) laps (Dillon) and then we’re stuck a lap down, it could ruin our race. I drove as hard as I could, and it paid off for us.

“(It was) nothing to get him back for. Cars were hard to drive. We had a lot of laps on the tires. I saw he was going to try to get on the outside of (Dillon) and that’s where was good in (turns) 3 and 4. So I ran in there with him. I was just going to give him a nudge and make sure he didn’t get by (Dillon). I didn’t mean to give up the win there for him in that stage.’’

Thanks to his approach, Stenhouse finished 10th and earned a stage point.

Proving that the lost opportunity is already in Busch's head, he not only lost the race win to Brad Keselowski -- who became the first driver to earn a second win this season -- but isn't excited about the near future.

Joe Gibbs Racing has won three of the last 30 races in NASCAR's Chase/playoff, but this year's race to the title is still 21 races away.

Tell us how you really feel come September, Kyle. Maybe everything will be great by then.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Larson breaks through, continues hot streak

When it came to discussing the potential of Kyle Larson, one theme tended to dominate before the 2017 season began.

Larson seemed full of promise, but couldn't master the art of closing out a victory when given the opportunity.

All has turned 180 degrees now, especially after what happened Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson not only led 110 laps, but found his way through the insanity of four late restarts and won the Auto Club 400. Not only was it Larson's second career win, but his fourth straight top-2 finish. 

Sure, he's only halfway to Kevin Harvick's mark of eight straight set just two years ago, but it's the way Larson raced for the whole weekend -- he won the XFINITY race, too -- that got everyone's attention. 

The driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy for Chip Ganassi Racing wasn't committed to riding along the wall at the wide 2-mile oval. Larson made the adjustments when he needed to and found a way to get back to the front after taking four tires during what turned to be the third of four cautions that happened over the final 22 laps.

Once Larson came down off the wall, it was all he needed to close the deal. The No. 42 got away cleanly on the race's final restart and rode the momentum all the way to Victory Lane, his first since Michigan -- a similar wide 2-mile track -- last August.

Larson has become the fifth different winner from the fifth different race team to earn a checkered flag so far this season. There's a shock behind Larson's win that doesn't have anything to do with him.

The engines for the Ganassi cars are supplied by Team Hendrick, the very same organization that has yet to reach Victory Lane.

Heck, Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't won, either.

How bad is it for NASCAR's two best race teams? Chase Elliott is the highest in the standings, tied for second in points with Brad Keselowski. Kasey Kahne is the next best Hendrick driver in 13th, Jimmie Johnson is 17th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 21st.

Among the Gibbs crew, Kyle Busch is 10th, Denny Hamlin is 12th, rookie Daniel Suarez is 19th (although he has back-to-back seventh-place runs the last two weeks) and Matt Kenseth is 25th.

That's not good, but it doesn't necessarily reflect a changing of the guard.

For Larson to push his run of top-2 finishes a little higher up the ladder, he'll have to look at Johnson in his rear-view as much as he can. Johnson has nine wins at Martinsville, but hasn't finished better than ninth (Phoenix) in the first five weeks.

It's all in good time at this point, but we're still in a state of flux where change will be happening radically up and down the standings. Larson has full control of things right now, but the season has only just begun.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hello, Newman! Drought ends at Phoenix

He hadn't won in more than three full seasons -- 127 races total. Ryan Newman wasn't about to do anything conventional when a golden opportunity to break the drought fell into his lap.

Crew chief Luke Lambert made the call -- no tires instead of two. When Newman stayed on the track, it proved to be the move that ended the frustration and put his Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet in Victory Lane at the Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was Newman's first since the Brickyard 400 in 2013, and it was made possible when Joey Logano -- of all people -- blew a tire with six laps to go.

After all the talk of the post-race "fight" at Las Vegas between Logano and Kyle Busch during the week, Logano's mishap was the catalyst that led to Busch coming to pit road while Newman stayed out.

In the end, Newman had enough left in his tires to hold off Kyle Larson and put an end to the long winless drought on a day under blazing sunshine with temperatures in the mid-90s.

The irony of it all was dripping as much as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ice pack was inside his car on the 1-mile oval.

Four weeks in, and we've had four pretty amazing finishes. Who needs the NCAA Tournament when a) most brackets were already ruined after Villanova's stunning loss to Wisconsin on Saturday and b) the win by Newman may have topped what's found on the Casey Affleck dramatics scale.

If'you saw Affleck's Oscar-winning performance in "Manchester By The Sea," you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But with that said, Newman's win only adds to what's been a pretty amazing beginning to this NASCAR season. Even with Martin Truex Jr.'s stage sweep to the win at Las Vegas, the racing has been far from ordinary.

-Kurt Busch won Daytona on the last lap. First driver ever in the race's 59 years.
-Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta when Kevin Harvick's pit-road speeding penalty cost him.
-Truex won at Vegas when he regained the lead with two laps to go after Keselowski ran into a problem with the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.
-And then there was Newman, who took a chance that paid off in one of the more unlikely race wins in recent memory.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it will always be worth watching -- from beginning to end.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Not always easy to be in right spot

As everyone is aware by now -- unless they hid under a rock all weekend -- there was a pretty tremendous race weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Not only did the SMI track sign on for a second Monster Energy Cup Series date starting next season, but the finish of the Kobalt 400 was a good precursor of what's to come.

Martin Truex Jr. won the race, the first for Toyota on the young 2017 season. He swept all three stages -- the first driver to so under NASCAR's new scoring format -- and it wasn't looking likely as the laps wound down.

The No. 78 Bass Pro Shops car was passed by Brad Keselowski at lap 244, but fortune smiled down on Truex when Keselowski lost his momentum and the lead just two laps short of the finish.

Truex beat Kyle Larson by just over 1.6 seconds, but the real excitement came afterward when Kyle Busch took out his frustration for spinning out as he battled with Joey Logano for fourth place on the final lap.

Before Truex could finish wheeling his car -- which had steam pouring out of it -- into Victory Lane, Busch made a beeline for Logano's pit and tried to take a few good swings at him. None connected before Logano's pit crew pulled Busch away and several NASCAR officials finished the job.

My friend and fellow reporter Jeff Gluck was in the right place at the right time and got 50 seconds of video of the fight that TV wasn't able to show. According to conversations I heard later, the video was viewed 1 million times on YouTube within nine hours.

As of today (2 pm Mountain time), that number has grown to nearly 1.9 million. While it's good to be around for something that went viral, there's something else that I chose to focus on.

Martin Truex Jr. won the Kobalt 400. He almost didn't. That's got to be worth something, even if it ended up flying just under the radar in the big picture and collection of story lines.

And after further review, I'm pleased with how everything turned out. You, the reader, not only knew who won, but knew of the unlikely sidebar of the "fight" between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

My pictures weren't half-bad, either.

It's just like Brad Keselowski said after his finish in Las Vegas. You have to stick around until the end because you just never know what's going to happen.

Even if more than one thing happens at the exact same time.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.