Counting down to Daytona

The US Scene

The American racing season traditionally kicks off with the NASCAR Daytona 500 in the middle of February. It’s a perfect time for Americans, and Canadians too, to break out of the mid-winter blues for a trip south to Florida. The February date is one of the foundations of the 500’s success and Bill France Sr was quick to realise that he could trade on the snowbirds’ desire to head south in the dark of winter by extending Daytona’s ‘Speedweeks’ both before and after the 500.

The entire affair gets rolling with the Daytona 24 Hours near the end of January and continues through two weeks of stock car racing, which includes seven different races over five days, and is followed by a week’s break before a final week of motorcycle racing. These days, ‘Bike Week’ in early March brings the biggest economic impact to the city of Daytona of all three segments of Speedweeks in money spent in hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. But most of the motorcycle aficionados hang out on the beach for an extended party and never go near the race track.

NASCAR has become the 800lb gorilla of American racing, pushing all other forms of the sport to the margins. The only other sanctioning body that has eked out its own share of the market is the NHRA’s PowerAde drag racing series. The rest of America’s racing series are at best marginal players in the national media marketplace.

With 36 first-division Sprint Cup races running almost every weekend from February to November, NASCAR keeps its big ball rolling a million miles ahead of the IRL IndyCar Series, Champ Car, the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am, etc. From Daytona, NASCAR moves its show to California the following weekend, before setting up on successive weekends at Las Vegas, Atlanta and then Bristol, Tennessee. By the time America’s fractured open-wheel series and the ALMS sports car series make their belated starts in March or April, NASCAR is into the heart of its season with the year’s heroes, villains and controversies already established.

Double NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is favourite to win his third consecutive Cup title this year. Johnson and his Hendrick Chevrolet team-mate Jeff Gordon dominated last year’s championship, winning 10 and six races respectively and taking their intra-team title duel down to the season’s finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson, 32, is at the top of his game, outpacing mentor Gordon in the critical, closing races last year. Gordon, 36, is a four-time champion and part-owner of Johnson’s car, and urged team owner Rick Hendrick to hire him in 2001.

Johnson and Gordon are both smart, technically astute drivers and cool, calculating racers who are also close friends. Oval track racing is all about dialling in your car so it’s best suited for the final sprint to the finish, and on this count, Johnson and Gordon are masters of the art.

Both were born and raised in California and dreamed of becoming Indycar drivers before their NASCAR careers took shape. Today, unlike the traditional NASCAR driver, they maintain their primary residences in New York City.

All these things mean that they rank among the fans’ least popular drivers.

Who can beat Johnson and Gordon in ’08? Many of his fans believe Dale Earnhardt Jr will win his first Cup championship now that he has left the family team (Dale Earnhardt Inc) to join Johnson and Gordon in the four-car Hendrick superteam. Earnhardt is by far NASCAR’s most popular driver because of his name and because he walks and talks like a true Carolina stock car driver is s’posed to. ‘Little E’ is a fast, aggressive driver, but his technical skills are often questioned. He hasn’t won a race in two years, but his move to Hendrick means he’ll have equal equipment to Johnson and Gordon. This year we will find out what Dale Jr truly is made of.

And the other contenders? There’s 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who leads the four-car Roush-Fenway Ford team. Kenseth finished fourth in last year’s championship and is almost always in the hunt, as are his team-mates Carl Edwards (last year’s second-division Busch series champion) and Greg Biffle. Other possible contenders include two-time champion Tony Stewart who leads Joe Gibbs’ three-car team, which this year becomes the first top-tier operation to switch to Toyota. Stewart is partnered by a pair of rapid young team-mates in Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, the latter joining Gibbs from Hendrick where he had to make way for Earnhardt. Both Hamlin and Busch are fast, feisty racers.

Nor can you discount 2004 champion Kurt Busch (Kyle’s older brother) with Penske’s team of Dodges or his team-mate Ryan Newman. Newcomer Clint Bowyer surprised many people by finishing third in last year’s championship driving for Richard Childress’s Chevrolet team, which also includes veterans Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. Martin Truex looked good in many races last year and takes over from his friend Dale Jr as team leader at DEI.

Juan Pablo Montoya won NASCAR’s rookie of the year award in 2007 after finishing 20th in the championship. Montoya won one race on the Sonoma road course, plus a Busch race in Mexico City. But if he’s to seriously make his mark, Juan must now win on an oval or two and break into the top 10 in the points.

This year Montoya is joined in NASCAR by Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, et al. Like A J Allmendinger, who made the move from Champ Car last year, all face long, uphill battles.

I write before the Daytona 24-hour race which gets the season underway for the hardcore enthusiast. The Rolex 24, as it’s now called, is pretty healthy these days with a big field of Grand-Am cars. Recently the race has attracted a wide range of drivers, including NASCAR stars Johnson, Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt, and is easily the biggest event of Grand-Am’s year. Grand-Am is a kind of NASCAR version of sports car racing, backed by Jimmy France, younger brother of the late Bill France Jr. The closed-cockpit cars are more restricted by rules, more like spec cars than the open-cockpit prototypes of the rival ALMS.

ALMS has a much smaller field of LMP1 and LMP2 cars bolstered, like Grand-Am grids, by a selection of GT cars. The races tend to draw bigger crowds and more media recognition than Grand-Am, which struggles in near-obscurity at most venues. Part of the reason is that the ALMS has attracted factory-backed teams from Audi, Porsche, Mazda and most recently Acura, because there’s at least a whiff of innovative thinking and technology in the prototypes and more variety in the rules.

But the pair of duelling sports car series is much like IRL/Champ Car, splitting potential competitor and fan bases and creating confusion about who’s who and what’s what. A ridiculous situation is highlighted by the entirely different card of drivers and cars at the Rolex 24 and the ALMS’s Sebring 12 Hours seven weeks later. Located only a few hours’ drive apart, these classic races should provide a great launch for the season to follow, as they did when they were part of the World Sports Car Championship and then IMSA’s Camel GT and GTP series. Until Daytona and Sebring are once again on the same page, American sports car racing’s potential will be unfulfilled.

American open-wheel racing’s path to destruction continues, with Champ Car looking particularly unhealthy. Compared to NASCAR’s 43 ground-shaking stock cars, the IRL and Champ Car’s fields of 17 or 18 cars look pathetically anaemic. The IRL at least has Honda to provide resources and stability, and recognisable names like Hélio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon and Danica Patrick, but Champ Car is devoid of manufacturer support and sponsorship and has lost most of its name drivers. Next month we’ll look at the many challenges facing the IRL and Champ Car, and discuss what some people believe is the only possible solution to their problems.

• The ALMS vs Grand-Am, p110