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Pretty Good Drivers

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For some racers, the pathway from the dirt to Winston Cup is still a two-way street.

For nearly nine decades it was the dream of practically every grass roots, oval track, open wheel race driver in the United States to one day drive in the Indianapolis 500. Ever since the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway represented the pinnacle for racers who competed on the short oval race tracks of America in high-speed, high-horsepower, open wheel race cars. drivers such as Bill Vukovich, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford were perfect examples of these drivers who honed their racing skills in Midgets and Sprint Cars before achieving stardom in the Indianapolis 500. But times have changed dramatically. More and more grass roots, oval track, open wheel race drivers still dream of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, only in a NASCAR Winston Cup car in the Brickyard 400, not in an Indy Racing League machine in the Indianapolis 500.

As NASCAR Winston Cup racing continues to grow in popularity, it has lured many USAC stars to the series. Ken Schrader made his move to NASCAR as a full-time Winston Cup driver in 1985. Even though he became a regular in the series, open wheel drivers still continued to aspire to Indy Cars. But as CART began to become more influenced by street and road courses, which started a trend toward foreign-born racers, drivers in the USAC Midget, Sprint, and Silver Crown series were virtually stuck without hope of advancement.

The advent of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series brought even more drivers from the USAC open wheel ranks into full-fendered racers including such drivers as Mike Bliss and Randy Tolsma. When Indy Racing League star Tony Stewart decided to leave open wheel racing and sign with team owner Joe Gibbs, that was yet another major sign of a migration in progress. With Stewart's spectacular rookie season in NASCAR Winston Cup, now more and more team owners in both the Winston Cup and Busch Series are recruiting drivers from open wheel racing. Gibbs has signed USAC star Jason Leffler to compete in the Busch Series.

Dave Steele and Ryan Newman are the latest open wheel racers heading to the NASCAR Busch Series. And in July, Formula Atlantic driver Anthony Lazzaro was signed by team owner Cal Wells III to begin a NASCAR career in the Busch Series beginning in 2000 with hope of advancing into Winston Cup racing. It appears the trend will continue, but why are open wheel racers suddenly becoming such a hot commodity in NASCAR?

Bob East, the dominant chassis builder in USAC open wheel racing with the Beast chassis, has the answer. "Steve Hmiel told me one time the reason they liked open wheel guys is when they race the Midgets, they have to get every bit out of it that they can and race within inches of each other, but they can't touch them because they will crash bad," East says. East was referring to the technical consultant at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., who spent a decade as team manager at Roush Racing. "The Silver Crown series is a real drivers stepping stone because they have to learn tire management and they can't run into each other," East continues. "Most of the local stock car guys, like in ASA and ARCA, have grown up in stock cars and have beat on each other since they were 16 years old. They can't do that on a superspeedway because it beats up the car and their bodies." Where NASCAR team owners such as Gibbs used to look at drivers currently in Winston Cup or the Busch Series for his rides, he found a potential "franchise player" in Stewart, the '97 IRL champion. Stewart, in turn, convinced Gibbs to give Leffler, another open wheel talent, a chance in Gibbs' Busch Series car.

Leffler made his Busch debut in the Kroger 200 at Indianapolis Raceway Park the night before the '99 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "He is a little bit like Tony," says Gibbs, who had an eye for talent when he was the head coach for the Washington Redskins - winners of three Super Bowls under his tenure. "Tony has had a lot of background with him. We had watched him race different places. I think he shows that extra bit of talent. We are going to see what he is like in these bigger cars and we are going to take it one step at a time. We'll have to see how it goes. We'll see how Jason likes them. He has only been in two tests with us and IRP was a real test for him because it's a tough race."

As is a problem with many teams in the IRL, the search for sponsorship did not yield a backer, and Leffler decided to head south literally. "I haven't really given up on the Indy 500; I'd like to do that one day "Not that the IRL hasn't helped open wheel drivers. I think it has helped, even us guys going into stock car racing, because it made everybody realize there are some pretty drivers drivers in the USAC series," Leffler says.

Leffler also credits his relationship with Tony Stewart, who is co-owner of his Silver Crown team along with Bob East, for helping him get started in NASCAR. "That's one great thing about being associated with Joe Gibbs--they have Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte and a lot of great people there that you can get drivers advice from and really trust. I don't feel I'm alone out there in my learning curve. I feel that I have Tony for advice, I can ask questions and trust what he says."

That advice is very useful as Leffler continues to adapt to the vast differences between an open wheel racing machine and a stock car. "A stock car is a lot heavier, has less horsepower, and less tire than a Silver Crown car," Leffler says. "It is actually, to me, a little harder to get around the track than an IRL car. An IRL car has a lot of downforce and a lot of tire so in some places you are running wide open. My biggest problem is getting used to all the weight in a stock car and getting used to the radial tires compared to what I'm racing now. But I have a drivers team, so that helps out.

Stewart is bringing more open wheel racers with him, including Leffler. "I just like the kid. I think he is a talented race car driver," Stewart says of Leffler. "There is more to being a drivers race car driver than just sitting in the seat and driving. He has a really drivers feel for the race car and he listens well. He can take what you are telling him and apply it to the race car. He is really drivers about giving feedback and really feeling changes when you make a change to the race car. He is the type of guy you want to take under your wing and help out."

Some are surprised that the IRL let a driver like Leffler get away, especially when he embodies all the qualities the IRL is hoping to attract in its series - a young, American, grass roots, oval track, open wheel racer. "I don't know how the IRL has any choice right now," Stewart says. "The car owners are the ones that have to do that. What is the IRL going to do? Unless the IRL is going to physically put him in a car and pay for the bills, how is the IRL going to have any control over it? It's the same thing that happened to me."

Stewart's arrival may have been the defining reason why the rush to open wheel racers has become so strong. "A drivers race car driver is a drivers race car driver, no matter what you put them in. I think it is opening a lot of doors for a lot of other people, whether they come from a formula background, road course racing, whatever. It has given a lot of guys opportunities to run in the truck series, the Busch Series, and now the Winston Cup Series." "The main reason these guys are leaving for NASCAR is there are ride opportunities for them with all the corporate sponsors going down there," East says. "They are basically going to teams with their helmet bag and if sponsors like them, they put a package together where they can go do that. To do an IRL or CART team, they basically have to bring their own sponsors with them." East has built his reputation in USAC open wheel racing, but he does not have mixed emotions to see his drivers forsake a future in Indy cars for stock cars.

But, considering his open wheel background, which form of racing has Leffler's heart? "My heart lies in just being able to move on and being with the best team I can possibly be with, and surrounding myself with drivers people, and being successful, and giving it 100 percent," Leffler says. "It really didn't matter if it were stock car or open wheel." Gibbs may have the best reason of all why a talented open wheel race driver should consider NASCAR Winston Cup racing over Indy Cars or CART. "I guess it is opportunity, where you think the best opportunity will be," Gibbs says. "I would say their evaluation is, 'Where can I have the most fun? Where can I make the most money? Where am I going to get the most attention? What does it look like is best for my career?' I think all of those are things they evaluate."

NASCAR needs rivalries and perceived villains. If nothing else, they certainly make the sport more interesting. As the Sprint Cup season moves toward the Chase and beyond, we'll find out how intense the new rivalry between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch becomes and how long it lasts.

NASCAR has had heroes, villains and rivalries throughout its existence. Nearly every rivalry arose from an on-track incident that prompted one driver to seek revenge on another. Several times disputes were settled with, shall we say, "confrontations" in the pits. But sometimes, rivalries lasted for weeks, months and even years.

For several seasons, starting in the late 1960s, Richard Petty and David Pearson were at loggerheads - but not personally. They were at odds because they were the top drivers of the day, especially on superspeedways, and each wanted to beat the other. When it came to the big tracks, it was easy to predict which drivers were going to finish 1-2. And Petty and Pearson, both of whom won their share of races, did it many, many times.

The most dramatic example of this is, of course, the 1976 Daytona 500. Petty and Pearson wrecked in the fourth turn while battling for the lead on the last lap. Pearson had the presence of mind to keep his foot on the clutch so his engine would not stall. He limped past Petty's helpless car at 25 mph to win.

For Petty, things had gotten a lot more personal in 1972, the season in which he became involved in perhaps the most contentious rivalry in NASCAR history. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had a fierce rivalry in the early 1970s, one of the best driver vs. driver duels in the sport's history.

Bobby Allison drove for Junior Johnson that year. By the time the season moved into a September short-track swing, it was clear either he or Petty was going to win the championship. What evolved into a brawl began at Richmond, where leaders Allison and Petty slammed into each other repeatedly.

The fender banging continued at Martinsville two weeks later and culminated Oct. 1 at the old North Wilkesboro, N.C., track, where the two drivers slammed each other into the wall and finished the race in cars that looked ready for the junkyard. Petty won all three short-track races and the championship. His feud with Allison officially ended in October in Charlotte, where the two shook hands for a newspaper photograph.

In 1977, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough entered into a rivalry that consisted more of words than on-track antics. The upstart Waltrip didn't hesitate to poke fun at the stars of the day, including Yarborough-who didn't like the mouthy newcomer. In the Southern 500 at Darlington, Waltrip and Yarborough staged a ferocious duel for victory when they became involved in a multicar accident.

One of the drivers caught up in the mayhem, D.K. Ulrich, asked Yarborough why he hit him. Yarborough replied, "I didn't hit you. 'Jaws' [Waltrip] hit you." The nickname stuck. Three races later, at Martinsville, an exhausted, heat-stricken Yarborough emerged as the winner. He declared that 500 laps of racing on the short track were too physically taxing. When Waltrip won a week later at North Wilkesboro, he pounced. He declared that the race was "A one-and-a-half or a two on the 'Cale Scale.'" He then suggested Yarborough was getting too old to race.

Despite his status as a NASCAR icon, Dale Earnhardt was easily the villain throughout the 1980s. He had run-ins with just about every driver, or so it seemed. But his most notable and lengthy rivalry was with Geoff Bodine. Earnhardt did not like Bodine, whom he called "Conehead."

Their most noted on-track confrontation came in The Winston all-star race of 1987. Earnhardt pinched Bill Elliott low in the first turn at the start of the final 10-lap segment and then clipped Bodine, who spun. Earnhardt and Elliott roughed up each other as they raced to the finish. Elliott suffered a cut tire as Earnhardt won. A furious and fed-up Bodine took an on-track jab at Earnhardt's car.

NASCAR President Bill France Jr had seen enough and ordered Earnhardt and Bodine to join him for dinner in Daytona. There, he made certain both drivers calmed down. Regardless of what we see out of Busch and Edwards, the type of rivalry we saw developing between them at Bristol is nothing new in NASCAR history. And to be honest, that's been a good thing.

In one of the strangest races in Daytona 500 history, the wildest moment turned out to be an unscheduled tag-team wrestling match. On Feb. 18,1979, at Daytona, Cale Yarborough and the Alabama Gang set the bar for NASCAR fisticuffs to a level that modern-day drivers can only dream of punching through.

On the final lap of the Daytona 500, Donnie Allison blocked Yarborough's pass for the lead by running him into the muddy backstretch grass. Yarborough countered by taking a hard right and pile-driving Allison into the wall at turn three. Both cars spun into the grass between turns three and four, handing the win to Richard Petty.

Petty, who had been running a distant third, suddenly found himself in the lead with less than two miles to go. Waltrip made a desperation move to the apron of the track in the tri-oval, but Petty stayed in front by a car length at the line. Petty, who had offseason surgery to remove 40 percent of his stomach, was racing against the advice of his doctor. It was almost inevitable that Yarborough and the Allisons would be involved in a race-ending incident, because that's how they started their day, once a chilly morning rain ended.

On lap 32, Donnie Allison lost control and forced Yarborough and Bobby Allison to take evasive action, as all three cars spun through the muck and the mire on the backstretch infield.

Forced to pit to repair his waterlogged car, Yarbrough ended up losing four laps to the leaders. But he used a series of cautions to his advantage — including making up three laps in a 35-lap span — to get back on the lead lap for the final sprint to the finish.

Contrary to popular belief, though, it wasn't Donnie Allison who put Yarborough in the mud. It was big brother Bobby, who had pulled over to check on his brother. During the supposed cool-down period, Bobby and Cale exchanged words and then fists before Donnie and the safety crews intervened.

CBS was also in town, capturing the melee during the first live flag-to-flag network telecast of the Great American Race. Ken Squier's call: "Richard Petty wins it, ... and there's a fight!" Ken Squier, was the talent, but Yarborough and Donnie and Bobby Allison were the stars.

The nation was instantly hooked on the sport. And we have been ever since. It exposed stock car racing to people who had never seen it before. More importantly, it exposed the sport to potential sponsors who might not have otherwise given it a look. Much of the Northeast and Midwest were snowed in that day and the CBS-TV ratings were better than anyone expected. Those numbers were part of why ESPN chose to take a chance on NASCAR in the '80s.

Four days after the race at Bristol, the NASCAR world was still abuzz over the dust-up between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Just when Busch and Edwards were threatening to lull fans to sleep by dominating every race and swapping victories each week, BAM!, they run into each other on the track and turn their budding rivalry into a full-fledged feud. Suddenly, NASCAR fans had something to talk about. And NASCAR, its TV partners and everyone who promotes the sport suddenly had something to sell, an exciting, compelling drama to inspire all sorts of marketing campaigns.

Finally, NASCAR had a rivalry between two fiery competitors - not to mention the year's top two contenders. Busch and Edwards create the most excitement we've seen since the Daytona 500 and NASCAR places them on probation, guaranteeing that they can't - and won't - stir up such controversy again.

Just when the sport gets a white-hot issue to fuel interest and attract fans, NASCAR throws a bucket of cold water on it, drowning any hope of the Busch-Edwards tiff escalating into something even more interesting. Now, Busch and Edwards must be on their best behavior. If they run into each other again, NASCAR has no choice but to fine them, take away points or issue some other penalty, something neither can afford. Sure, probation is a mere slap on the wrist, but why even do that? What Busch and Edwards did at Bristol - hitting and spinning each other on the cool-down lap - were minor incidents that put no one in danger No harm, no foul.

I understand that NASCAR can't have drivers intentionally running into each other on the track or retaliating for on-track incidents, but Busch and Edwards hit each other on the backstretch after the race was over. It's not as if they did it on pit road, putting innocent bystanders in danger. Instead of hurting each other or creating a dangerous situation, their outbursts stoked the capacity crowd and made highlight reels everywhere. It was good drama, good TV and sparked a rivalry - the type of rivalry NASCAR has needed for years.

Now NASCAR is going to squash it by placing them on probation. Why? What's more, NASCAR officials declared before the season that they wanted drivers to stir things up, to show a bit of anger and emotion and to create some controversy once in a while. Now, when two of them finally oblige, NASCAR basically tells them not to do it again and guarantees that they won't by putting them on probation.

Essentially, NASCAR killed a simmering feud before it reached the boiling point. Sometimes you wonder what NASCAR officials are thinking and what their real agenda is. Do they want a sport with colorful characters who stir things up and show some raw emotion, sparking controversy and creating story lines and drama, as in the old days? Or do they want to cater to corporate America, keeping everything neat and clean and politically correct so no one will be embarrassed or dare think this is a rough-and-tumble, grassroots sport that appeals to common people? Do they want to be the NFL or professional golf?

With the competition on the track often less than enticing, it needs characters, rivalries and even bitter feuds to stir things up and make the sport exciting. Drivers can't do that if they get slapped on the wrist every time they step out of line. They can't do that if NASCAR insists they act like choirboys.

Bruce Martin. Open Wheel Racing: NASCAR’s Talent Pool May Find Its Roots There. Stock Car Racing. November 2004.
Steve Waid. Edwards-Busch spat just the latest in a long line of NASCAR rivalries. NASCAR Scene. September 4, 2008.
Jeff Owens. Leave it to NASCAR to put a damper on something exciting. NASCAR Scene. September 4, 2008.


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