Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bad Luck Follows Keselowski to Vegas

If it weren't for bad luck, Brad Keselowski would have no luck at all.

Keselowski went into the Sam's Town 300 hoping to put Daytona and Fontana behind him. And, truth be told, all signs looked promising as he snagged an eighth starting position.

He was positive. Hopeful. Surely, Brad thought, lady luck would smile benevolently on his third race of the season. "It’s just a good thing that the season is 35 races long because we have 33 races to get past the disappointment of these past two weeks, and I feel like Las Vegas is a good place to do that,” he said.

Good thing I didn't bet on that.

In a day filled with flying parts, fiery crashes and yellow flags, the black cloud that's been hovering over the JR Motorsports 88 car didn't dissipate in the Vegas sun. Instead, it followed Keselowski in the form of Mike Bliss who wrecked him on lap seven, sending him down pit road several times over for a little damage control.

Laps later, with his patched-up car back on the track, a tire rub added to his troubles and sent Keselowski into the wall and back into the garage.

The only good news for the #88 car came at the expense of a good chunk of the rest of the field. With more crunches and cautions than you could shake a dipstick at, the race ended with a slew of DNFs.

This made for one heckuva exciting finish. But it also helped Brad finish in an (all things considered) respectable 27th place.

Here's hoping Keselowski's luck turns around for good in tomorrow's Cup race. But I'm not holding my breath---he's starting in 13th spot.

Friday, February 27, 2009

It's Vegas Jimmie, Vegas!

For a back-to-back-to-back Sprint Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson has got to be the most understated winner in all of motorsports. He doesn't make a fuss. He doesn't make waves. He doesn't make enemies. He just makes good. Race after race after race.

And it's about time for ol' Jimmie to start making good this year. The last go 'round in Vegas wasn't a high point for the #48 team. But prior to that day (which is forever burned--like poison acid--into the minds of Johnson fans), Jimmie and Chad snagged a Nevada victory three years in a row.

On Sunday (thanks to an engine switch by pole sitter Kyle Busch), Johnson starts on the front row. And if the car looks as good as it did in qualifying tonight, he's gonna get his shot at another Vegas burnout.

But even if Johnson was starting back in the field, he'd have a chance at the checkers. How many times have we watched him pick off car after car, like a sniper with his target in sight? He's smooth, methodical and stealthy. And, if his Chevy is good and the creek don't rise, he's almost always there at the end, challenging for the lead.

So Jimmie J, if you win on Sunday, I have one request. Do something a little crazy. Cause a little ruckus.

After all, you are in Vegas.

Race Weekend Ramblings

Am I the only chick out there who thinks roughneck American Idol contestant Michael Sarver and a certain NASCAR driver share more than a slight resemblance? As my friend T pointed out ... Sarver looks like a big Dale Junior. Judge for yourself.

Cheers to Brad Keselowski, Regan Smith, Joe Nemechek, Max Papis, David Gilliland and Todd Bodine. They'll be racing on Sunday in the Shelby 427.

Earlier tonight, while the boys on Trackside were discussing the whereabouts of Darrell Waltrip, the director cut to a shot of DW driving a golf cart. Lying across the back of the cart like a piece of freakish plush roadkill was a gi-normous Digger. At first, I thought Darrell had finally had all he could take of that irritating varmint and had mowed him down in a fit of manic rage. Too bad that wasn't the case.

Mark Martin had the fastest car in Sprint Cup practice and qualified eighth. The man has seen success in Vegas before. Does he have checkers in his future?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Joey Logano: Give the Kid a Break

Joey Logano is just a kid. But he's playing in a man's world.

At 19 years young, Logano has taken over the coveted ride of one of the most talented drivers in motorsports. He's been profiled, photographed and marketed to within an inch of his life. And his arrival on the Sprint Cup scene has been fraught with words like "boy wonder," "racing phenom" and the infamous "sliced bread."

With such massive hype comes massive expectations. But in this case, such high hopes aren't entirely fair.

Logano is running his first full Sprint Cup season with only 23 races under his belt, and that's counting all of the top three series combined. Not much experience--even if you are a wunderkind. Daytona came to a crashing halt early on. Then, in Fontana, he pulled out a top 20 finish.

Compare that to hotshot uber talent Kyle Busch. In his first full Cup season, Busch had already made 54 starts on the Craftsman, Busch and Nextel circuits. That's a heckuva lot more schooling than Logano. And by year's end, it paid off. Busch finished '05 twentieth in points and never looked back.

I say that if Logano fails to live up to the hype this year, the blame isn't his. After all, as Logano himself has said, who would pass up a ride with Joe Gibbs? Experience comes with time. Opportunity only knocks once. Besides, if he's really got the goods, the results will follow soon enough.

So let's give the kid about 30 more races before we start calling him a disappointment.

And then, let's give the kid a break.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It May Not Be In Vegas, But Bet On A Win For Waltrip In '09

Making predictions are a craps shoot at best. But if the first two races of the Sprint Cup season are any indication of events yet to come, I'm betting that Michael Waltrip will be in Victory Lane at least once in 2009 (and not just to congratulate a competitor).

Call me crazy, but Waltrip has looked (dare I say it?) impressive, in both the Daytona and Fontana races. He's been running well, racing consistently and he's been there at the end finishing strong both times.

Compare the two races we've seen so far with his stats from 2008. This year, Waltrip snagged a 7th-place finish at Daytona and a 15th at Fontana. Last year he finished 29th and 28th, respectively. This year, he is currently ranked 7th in points, with 264 to his credit. By this time last year, he had only racked up a measly 160.

Don't be discouraged. I'm sure this new and improved Waltrip won't fail to disappoint. There will still be days when he'll pit backwards. Who knows? He may even take another stab at adding "alternative fuel" to his Toyota. After all, a leopard doesn't change his spots.

But, for the time being at least, it looks like 2009 is going to be a good year. And this chick predicts Waltrip will take the checkers.

Care to double down on that?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kyle to F1? Say It Ain't So!

When word broke today that Kyle Busch's agent said the driver is "leaving the door open" for a switch to Formula One racing, there were -- most assuredly -- legions of NASCAR fans who heaved a collective sigh of relief and muttered a "good riddance" under their breaths.

This news was probably also viewed as a providential blessing straight from the throne of heaven by the small, struggling Camping World and Nationwide teams who are dog-tired of gazing at Kyle's bumper, while their opportunity to impress potential sponsors grows bleaker with each race he wins.

Yes, Kyle is arrogant, at times mean-spirited, and he often acts like he's God's gift to motorsports. However, the loss of Kyle Busch to Sprint Cup racing would be a terrible blow to the series.

Imagine the Sprint Cup Chase without Busch. Who would fans boo with snarls of disdain? Who would they blame for every wreck, spinout and caution that hampered their favorite driver? And who would take his place as King of All Things Theatrical and Antagonizer of Earnhardt and Edwards?

Though Tony Stewart has had his moments, and Denny Hamlin can be obnoxious when necessary, there's just nobody like Kyle for racing excitement, quotable interviews, and sheer blood-boiling drama.

Don't believe me? Just imagine how much fun we would have missed without moments like these:

"Some guys having some bad days and not doing their best out there, just made their bad day our bad day. It's just a shame. It's just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down that were fighting over nothing."

“It's unfortunate that a guy that's messed up his whole day on pit road and screwed up that he has to make our day worse.”

"He hit me getting into Turn 1. Whatever. Carl's going to say he's sorry, that he didn't want to race that way, but he always does. We'll take it, we'll go on and we'll race him that way in the Chase if that's the way he wants it.”

"He was slowing me down a tremendous amount. I was either going to move him out of the way or he was going to get out of the way."

"I left a lane for him on the outside because I knew he was going to have a good run coming off the corner. He ran me over for no reason whatsoever.”

"He'll always come back and say he's sorry, He did it at Milwaukee and he's done it a few other times. It's just his normal fashion. That's fine. I've grown to know that now."

“I guess Harvick didn't have very nice things to say, and Carl got his feelings hurt.”

"Walking down pit road, [when] saying congratulations to Jeff Gordon, I got blown off. I guess I'm the outsider looking in now and I'll probably not be invited to the team meetings next week."

Yes, Kyle is the man we love to hate. But let's face it. We'd all hate it if he left.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is Biffle His Own Worst Enemy?

Greg Biffle may have been driving a winning ride Sunday, but his tragic misstep off the track sent his Victory Lane hopes right down the pits. The #16 car was one of the quickest and most consistent cars of the night. But when Biffle took a long slide into his pit stall and ran over his air hose to boot, his perfect night went kaput.

To Biffle's credit, he took full responsibility for the error. After the race, he even said his mistake almost brought him to tears and that he should be fired. I wouldn't go that far. However, his pit road flub-up was only one of several errors "The Biff" has made since Daytona.

The night before his race-breaking pit stop, you could find Biffle smacking his car into the back of Brad Keselowski during the Nationwide Race at Fontana. The contact ended Brad's night (he was running fifth at the time) and wrecked the ill-fated Jason Leffler in the process. Then, on lap 128, Biffle spun out -- bringing out another caution and more pit stops for the field. He took a fifth-place start and turned it into 34th.

Of course, Biff's "just racing" incident on Saturday could have been a not-so-subtle payback for the Gatorade Duels, in which a tap from Keselowski sent Biffle spinning into the grass and subsequently into the garage. And then there were the four cautions at the Bud Shootout in which Biffle was involved --the last being contact with David Stremme, which again ended his night early.

The man himself summed it all up pretty well in an interview before the Daytona 500. "My thoughts right at this second are hopefully that before Speedweeks is over I get to finish a race is what I'm thinking about right now. We've had a few off-road excursions so far and these cars aren't nearly as good in the grass as they are on the pavement," he said.

The good news is, Biffle finished Daytona and Fontana, and ended his night in Cali with a solid fourth spot. He's even sitting pretty in the top five in points.

But if Biffle can't keep his "user errors" to a minimum, he won't be there for long.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Winnin' With the Blick-ness

Although it seemed like a major case of deja vu to this race fan at least, Kenseth's win at Fontana proved his Daytona victory can't just be blamed on the rain.

Kenseth ran great all night and, once again, took the checkers -- this time under green. As the race came to a close, Kenseth fended off Jeff Gordon, giving the rookies in the field a textbook lesson in how to drive under pressure. However, I can't help but think that if not for the stellar performance of Kenseth's crew, under the leadership of Drew Blickensderfer, Kenseth wouldn't have pulled out a victory so easily.

In just two races, "Blick" has shown his fellow Sprint Cup contenders that he has what it takes to be a major player at the highest level of motorsports. While Jimmie Johnson seemed to be the car to beat early on, adjustments on pit road kept him from dominating. And though Jeff Gordon ran the tires off his car in an effort to end his winless streak, his car just didn't have the goods at the finish.

As the outcome of the race became clear to Darrell Waltrip and the FOX crew, they discussed how much difference a year has made in Matt Kenseth's performance. Has it? 'Cuz this fan thinks the difference can be summed up in four syllables: Blick-ens-der-fer.

Is Kyle Busch Bad for Business?

You're darned if you're good and you're darned if you're not. And I hate to criticize a driver or a team for being too good. However, based on Saturday's races I've come to believe there is such a thing as too much perfection.

Kudos to Kyle for dominating both the Camping World and Nationwide races. But he was SO dominant, that for most of the day, his competitors didn't stand a chance. At one point during the Nationwide race, the car in second spot was 10 whole seconds behind him. And if this stays true for the rest, or even the first half of this season, fans will be so bored, they'll be reluctant to pony up the cost of admission tickets. In short, Saturday's outcome does not bode well for the two race series that will likely struggle the most with America's economic downturn.

Even the commentators on Saturday found it difficult to infuse some excitement into their Nationwide coverage. Their attempts mostly consisted of comments like: "the fans here have got to appreciate the enormous talent they've seen on display today." Sure, fans may appreciate it -- but no fan goes to a race to see the same car take the lead in the first lap with nary a challenger.

You could argue that there's still good racing going on back in the field. Which was true in both cases. But if those drivers don't stand a chance to take the checkers...who cares?

The attendance at the track on Saturday was clearly lackluster. The stands didn't even look packed around the start/finish line. And this is troubling. If the other teams can't get themselves in a position to best Busch (and soon) I'm afraid attendance will only dwindle as the season goes on.

And that's bad for NASCAR, bad for race fans, and bad for business.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why "The Nation" Likes Junior

Dale Jr's taken a lot of heat since Sunday from just about every corner of the racing world and blogsophere. But he didn't let the brutal week end before doing the right thing. He called Brian Vickers and apologized for the wreck heard 'round the world.

Whether Vickersgate was intentional or not is a moot point. What matters to Junior Nation, is that once again, their driver "manned up" and took the hard road--because it was the right thing to do.

There are tons of reasons why folks initally pick Junior as their favorite driver. But the reason so many fans stay loyal to him come hell or highwater is because of Junior himself--not his father, not his track record, and not his marketing.

He may not be the smoothest talker or have multiple championships under his belt, but Junior is who he is and he makes no apology for that. There are folks who likely think Junior's every move, and even his apology to Brian Vickers, are all part of a public relations ploy to further ingratiate himself with race fans. But if that's the case, the man deserves an Oscar. You can fake smarts and you can fake professionalism, but you can't fake real. And that's what Junior is.

Dale Jr is like your Uncle Ervin, your brother Clint and your buddy Jimmy all rolled into one. He's the type of guy you might find in the stands at the I-20 Dirt Track, fishing on Smith Lake or gettin' loud and knockin' back a few at the Stumble Inn Bar and Grill. He reminds you of someone who can change your oil, build a deerstand, and make you laugh at the same time. He looks comfortable in camo, at ease in a pick-up and dressed up in blue jeans.

In short, Junior is good people. And that goes a long way with folks who know good people when they see them.

Friday, February 20, 2009

And the Academy Award Goes to...Kyle Busch?

Although the dummies at "The Academy" have scheduled their piddly little awards ceremony for the same time slot as the Auto Club 500 (again), I'd hate for race fans to miss out on the parade of golden trophies, acceptance speeches and red carpet couture. So, per special request, the Academy members have held an emergency, private meeting and cast their votes for the best performances in NASCAR. May I have the envelope please?

Best Lead Driver in a Dramatic Role: Though other drivers have campaigned hard for this award, was the outcome ever in doubt? This Oscar goes to Kyle Busch--the man who's bringing drama back to motorsports. Bold, brash and pretty darn talented, this hothead has single-handedly instigated rivalries with just about everyone in the sport including Dale Jr, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Ron Hornaday, Kevin Harvick, Rod Blagojevich (OK, now that last one I made up, but you get my point). To tell the truth, there's something curiously admirable about a guy who can make so many enemies and still win so many races.

Best Paint Scheme Design: Now that the Academy has finally figured out that Tony has traded one Depot for another and that Bobby Labonte drives the car with the big, they've been able to cast an educated vote. In an almost unanimous decision, this award goes to the #24 car, Jeff Gordon. His new paint job is both fast, furious and fabulous.

Most Uncomfortable On-Screen Moment: When Michael Waltrip pretended his beer bottle was a (ummm, how shall I say this in polite company?) "private appendage" during the Bud Shootout Selection Show, was I the only one who felt violated? Two things: not funny and ewww - there are kids watching! Note to Michael: no one wants to see your bottle.

Best Signature Post-Race Move: Like, the burnout is so cliche already! It takes some real creative types to come up with a new way to celebrate a checkered flag. From Carl Edwards' back flippin' to Tony Stewart's fence climbin' there are a few drivers who know how to put their own spin on a win. But again, this award goes to Kyle Busch. Who else could bow to a crowd with such bravado, while being pelted with a fusillade of boos and seat cushions?

The "There's No Crying In NASCAR" Acheivement Award: As evidenced by his remarks on the radio as the Daytona 500 wound down, Elliott Sadler was clearly distraught by his inability to pull out a win. Although I could not see his face for the helmet, glare and safety net, I have it on good authority that he did not burst into tears--for which race fans are grateful. Elliott, look on the bright side, you're in the top five in points!

The Best Director Award: There were some strong contenders in this category: Steve Addington, Bob Osborne and Todd Berrier, just to name a few. But for sheer performance when it counts and the ability to lead his team to win after win, this Oscar goes to Chad Knaus. In addition to being a record-breaking crew chief, he may also be the smartest man in the Sprint Cup Garage.

Best Soundtrack: This one's easy. Tony Stewart's heartfelt and melodic rendition of "Ole, Ole, Ole" while taking the lead in the Daytona 500. Tony, do you take requests? I hear that "Freebird" song is pretty popular...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Welcome Back Infield Parking!

The social networking site for NASCAR fans, Infield Parking, has been down for a while. And I've been experiencing withdrawals--especially during and after the Daytona 500. I found myself trying to log on to the site repeatedly, but to no avail. And then reality set in, where was I going to go to talk about the race? Where could I find forums devoted to "Vickersgate"? And where could I find links to the latest news, videos and pix?

Well, it may be a week late in coming, but tonight I tried once more. And guess what? Infield Parking is back! It's still in Beta testing stage, but that's OK. I don't care if I have to rebuild my parking space and find all new friends. At least I know that when something big happens at the track, I can log on and lament or celebrate with my fellow race fans.

If you've never been on I suggest you try it. But don't say I didn't warn you: it can cause addiction.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some Broadcast Tips for the Boys at FOX

After watching the Daytona 500 on Fox Sunday, I can’t help but think that the boys at Fox need a bit of advice.

Not that I have anything against Darrell Waltrip, Larry Mac and co., but I don’t watch a race to see music-laden cartoons of a hapless gopher and cutaway segments for

If the folks at FOX want to keep this race fan happy, and keep me from switching to MRN coverage, here’s a few pieces of advice:

1. Limit your on-screen graphics. I can’t tell you how many times during the race I felt like I was looking around and even through the graphics to see what was happening on the track. I want to see the race. Not experiments in how many cool stat boxes you can fit on screen at the same time.

2. Call it like you see it. If you’ve been to a race or ever listened to coverage by MRN radio, you’ll know what I mean. Sure the guys in the Hollywood Hotel are entertaining, but they sometimes forget to call the race (especially when they’re doing a sponsored segment). And sometimes, when they do call the race, they lack the excitement that makes MRN so fantastic. Pay attention, tell me what's happening and get hyped up boys – it’s racing!

3. Radio chatter – I want more. Of course, if I’m watching Direct TV I can listen to chatter all I want. But it would behoove the folks at FOX to pay heed to this snippet of advice: don’t leave out this most interesting discourse of all. This is what fans really want to hear. Take, for instance, Junior’s threat to meet Brian Vickers in the garage after the race. Fox didn’t play it. I had to read that online. Remember, drama sells. And some of the best drama can be heard on team radios.

4. Commercials, is there no end? I know commercials pay the bills. And I’m thrilled that there are corporate sponsors who still find room in their advertising budgets for NASCAR air time. But could you please limit the number of commercial interruptions and run some ads on the bottom of the screen instead? Though this seems to contradict my first point, I stress that one commercial at a time, while the race continues above, would not bother me in the least. It would be a blessing.

Truly guys, I wish you no ill-will. You work hard, you’re funny and you clearly know what you’re talking about. Just please lessen this fan’s race-watching frustrations and consider my advice. It would make this fan, and a host of others, real happy.

Tire Trouble

Tony Stewart may disagree, but news this morning of Goodyear's multi-million dollar loss and and job cuts are what I call real tire trouble. How will this affect racing? It would take a smarter chick than me to figure that out. But I am left wondering how long it will be before the execs at Goodyear add their names to those seeking a federal bailout.

Goodyear Posts $330 Million Loss, to Trim 5,000 Jobs
By Alex Ortolani
Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the largest U.S. tiremaker, posted a fourth-quarter net loss of $330 million and said it plans to cut almost 5,000 jobs and continue a salary freeze.
The loss, its first in almost two years, was $1.37 a share and compares with net income of $52 million, or 23 cents, a year earlier, the Akron, Ohio-based company said today in a statement. Sales fell 20 percent to $4.14 billion.
Goodyear said the loss resulted from lower sales and higher raw material costs, which increased 28 percent. The company said it will curtail expenses by about $700 million and capital expenditures by as much as $800 million this year, while trimming production capacity by as much as 25 million units through 2010. The job cuts will reduce a workforce that stood at about 75,000 employees at the end of last year.

Eight Years Ago Today - In Memory of Dale Earnhardt

It's hard to believe it's been eight years since Dale Earnhardt died. I only saw him race in person once. It was my first-ever NASCAR race - the 2000 All-Star race at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. I was new to the sport and didn't know a scoring tower from a pit box. But I did know about Dale Earnhardt. After all, Earnhardt transcended NASCAR. He was a legend unto himself. And I'm grateful I got to see him race at least one time.

To honor Earnhardt's memory, there will be a candelight service tonight at the headquarters of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Press release below:

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (January 5, 2009) – Fans of Dale Earnhardt are being asked to pay tribute on Wednesday, February 18th in honor and memory of the legendary driver.
A guest book will be available throughout the day at Dale Earnhardt Inc. for those wishing to document their memories of Dale, while a candlelight tribute will be held outside the headquarters on Hwy #3 in Mooresville from 6:00-8:30 PM.
The facility will be illuminated with candles while commemorative decals, prayer cards and hand held candles will be distributed to everyone in attendance.
The facility’s gates will remain open through 10 p.m. for those that cannot attend the candlelight portion but still want to pay tribute to the legendary Dale Earnhardt. Those unable to attend are encouraged to light a candle in remembrance of Dale Earnhardt at home that evening.

Going to a Race? There Are Deals to Be Had

Let's face it. Nobody decides to go to a race because of $3 hotdogs or $1 off beverages. Now if the tickets are a steal -- then that's a different story. Several tracks have taken a play from Daytona and are lowering their prices. And one driver is even offering free tix to every race in 2009--you just have to enter on his web site. The list below:

Denny Hamlin's team is giving away 12 free tickets to the race at Sonoma in June, and Hamlin is giving away at least four tickets to every Sprint Cup race this season to fans who apply through his Web site.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped select tickets along the backstretch for July's 400-mile Sprint Cup race to $45. The move is an apology of sorts for last year's public-relations disaster when tire problems turned the race into a series of 10-lap shootouts.

Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway is offering $40 tickets, and in a news release touted it as the "Best Deal in 40 Years.”

Texas Motor Speedway is advertising $20 tickets and a flexible payment plan, allowing fans to propose their own payment schedule.

Atlanta Motor Speedway: "Buy 1, Get 1 Free" deal on its $95 ticket with a $25 purchase at Lowe's. Family four-pack, four tickets, four hot dogs and four Cokes for $159. Students with a valid ID get a $19 ticket, adults a $39 ticket.

Darlington Raceway: NASCAR'S oldest superspeedway has 9,000 seats in the Colvin Grandstand at $35 per ticket, a $10 discount for its Southern 500, which is held on Mother's Day weekend.

Martinsville Speedway: Four adult tickets for $159 for the March 29 race. Children 12-18 get half-price tickets, while backstretch tickets are $25. Family four-pack - two adults, two children - $99, a $41 discount.

At the Lowes Motor Speedway: Tickets for the Coca-Cola 600 start at $49, while tickets for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race begin at only $25 and can be purchased online at

Compiled from multiple sources. I'll update regularly as I find out more.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jimmie J Just Lucky?

Jimmie may not be the media's pick to win 4 in a row...but he's been way more than "lucky." (Or not, if you're Kyle Busch).

5 Life Lessons From Daytona

1. Life, like racing, is mostly about the decisions you make. You run with the wrong crowd at Daytona and you get sucked to the back faster than you can say "Dick Trickle". You work with your team and, if you're prepared and play it smart, you can all get to the front for a possible win. You find yourself a lap down? You never give up until you get back in a position to win. The importance of teamwork and smart decision-making - a metaphor for life.

2. Sometimes, you need to see the world through the eyes of a child. Whether you're a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or friend, no adult should go to Daytona (or any race, for that matter) without a child in tow. Watching a youngster's excitement over the zoom of the cars, the roar of the engines and bump drafting down the frontstretch can really put things in perspective. Sometimes we lose our zest for life. We become cynical and bored. If that's the case with you, take a kid to a race. Their enthusiasm will be contagious.

3. In tough economic times - some things are still worth a splurge. I'm speaking of the Fanzone at the Daytona International Speedway. This was my first experience "in the zone" and I'll never forget it. Hanging out on the fandeck over the garages is about more than seeing your favorite drivers and crew up close -- it's about making new friends and feeling a part of the NASCAR community at large. Mark Martin signs autographs from his garage- the crowd goes wild. There's Richard Petty - cameras start snapping. Ryan Newman's wrecked car rolls into the garage area - gasps of dismay erupt from the fans. Kyle Busch drives by - let the trash talking begin. For my money, I'd rather splurge on an experience in the Fanzone, than a driver T-shirt or ballcap. T-shirts fray, but memories live forever.

4. An unexpected kindness can make someone’s day, year or life. While hanging out in the infield before Saturday's Nationwide race, I met a US Army soldier and his six-year-old little boy who was wearing a Jeff Gordon Halloween costume and hat. An Army airborne ranger (who was standing near the stage before driver introductions) came over and talked to them and gave them what looked like Dale Jr. merchandise. Then a NASCAR official brought the boy a lugnut from one of the racecars. As if that weren't cool enough, minutes later, the CEO of Camping World (the folks who sponsored the Nationwide race) asked the soldier if he and his son would like to ride in the pace car and lead the field to the green flag. The folks standing around them burst into cheers and applause. And then, like NASCAR royalty, the soldier and his child were ushered under the yellow rope and into the driver area to take their places. I'd say the kindess of the person who made that little guy's dream come true will be remembered as long as he lives.

5. Keep the memory of your heroes alive. When NASCAR fans pick a driver, they are fiercely loyal. Perhaps no fans are moreso than those of Dale Earnhardt. From the hushed picture-taking by Earnhardt's statue in front of the Daytona 500 Experience to the wistful conversations of middle-aged men standing outside the Earnhardt merchandise trailer, Daytona is sacred ground. But it isn't only the fallen NASCAR heroes that are remembered with reverence. Fans don't forget second-chance heroes like Mark Martin (who got almost as much fan applause during Sprint Cup practice as Dale Jr) and veteran Bill Elliott, who had one of the fastest cars early on in Speedweeks. The moral of the story: don't forget where you came from - and who got you there in the first place.

In Defense of Dale Jr

God bless Dale Earnhardt Jr. Whether you love to love him or love to hate him, you have to admit that this guy's under more pressure than any other driver in Sprint Cup. And, according to Darrell Waltrip, we're all supposed to believe the pressure from his fans and critics alike is finally getting to him.

I don't buy it. Sure, he clipped Vickers. Sure he missed his pit box and then was penalized for being "on the line." But two things became clear to me as the laps wound down during the Daytona 500: Dale Jr. is serious about winning this year and the biggest pressure he's under is coming from himself.

He drove the wheels off his car as night came on, managing to get himself from the back to the front. From a lap down to the lead lap. And his intensity and irritability during the rain-delay interview cemented that fact. He knows this is his year. And he's got something to prove.

And he also knows he can't please everybody. If he had just sat pretty, eased up and failed to get back on the lead lap, NASCAR fans would have questioned his commitment to winning. He tries to pay back Vickers for 'Dega - AND put himself in a position to finish well (while unintentionally causing a pileup) and bloggers call him a bonehead who doesn't know how to drive. If the contact with Vickers would have sent Vicker spinning into the infield, Junior would be a hero. Instead, according to one online pundit, Junior is now a goat.

But that's temporary. If Junior keeps that fire to win burning all season long, he'll silence those critics easily enough. And he'll prove he can handle the pressure that comes not from his fans and critics, but from himself.