- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Every Bic-toting Joe in the NASCAR garage has written how much happier and more jovial and downright giddy Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this year compared to last. The last few, even. And it's true, certainly. Even those who know Junior best will tell you they've not seen him this gleeful in forever-plus. His boyish attitude is infectious.
But what you don't hear, and to me is rather obvious, too, though not nearly as analyzed or scrutinized -- yet -- is that the guy Junior replaced at Hendrick likes his new digs pretty well, too.
It's like people get that Kyle Busch is happy, but they're just waiting for him to screw up. It's like they can't see his happiness through the caution tape. I understand why.
Busch had some growing up to do. Still does. People forget he's only 22 years old. Most kids are in their fifth year of college at 22. Busch is in his fifth year of racing at the pinnacle of American motorsports. He's grown up in the public eye.
Busch has made some mistakes, but a lot of people do at that age. I sure did. Heck, if some of my heat-of-competition temper tantrums were documented in hi-def, the only place I'd be debating racing is on a bar stool at the Visulite Theatre. Most people are idiots at 19 years old. Few handle it like LeBron James.
There are many reasons for that, I figure. Mainly the new start. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson cast a damn long shadow -- on and off the racetrack. It takes a unique personality (see: Casey Mears) to accept playing background fiddle to that duet.
That's not to say Busch doesn't hold his former teammates in high esteem. Quite the contrary. I'd venture to say he respects them more than most anybody else in the sport, given the influence they've had on his career.
But for fans Busch never felt right at Hendrick. There were the other three guys, and then there was Kyle. It was that way when Brian Vickers drove the No. 25 and it didn't change any when Mears came on board.
And I could be dead wrong (I don't think I am), but when Rick Hendrick chose Busch as the odd man out in the Junior sweepstakes, it cut Busch deep. It was a stark reality check.
The team's bigger than you. So the sport certainly is.
In retrospect it's good for all parties. There's a different vibe surrounding Busch now. He's not the lead dog at Joe Gibbs Racing, either, but Busch-at-Gibbs feels right. A lot of that may be due to his scorching start in the No. 18. Some of it may be because he joins two other rascally types in Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Whatever it is, it works.
Busch is holding up his end of the deal and so is his team, so it's peachier than my granny Mimi Massey's pie right now.
Busch is the Cup Series points leader for the first time in his life. Trucks, too. He's run six races in 2008 and finished top-5 in every last one of them. That shouldn't shock anyone.
Bliss abounds, but again, will it last? Can it last? Detractors say no. They're just waiting for the explosion. Tick ... tick ... tick. How will Busch -- and JGR -- react when they stumble on a speed bump?
Only time will tell.
He's only 22, after all.
Tick ... tick ... tick ...
Now, mail time ...
What's the story with the hats Dale Jr. was wearing at Daytona? The first week it was the National Guard hat, and the second week it was the AMP hat. Those hats looked great but weren't available at his souvenir trailers in Daytona or at The Sports Authority in Daytona that featured his adidas gear.
I've looked all over eBay and the Internet and they are nowhere. There's even a blog on yahoo about people wanting these hats and no one can find them. With merchandise sales being so lucrative, why on earth is he wearing a great-looking hat that no one can buy?
-- Chris, Brunswick, Ga.
Those are team-specific hats, Chris. I'm told by the folks at Junior Motorsports that all four Hendrick teams have hats that are exclusive to the teams and aren't available for retail.
However, despite having Gordon and Johnson onboard, HMS is unaccustomed to having Junior's sales influence and were unaware of the insanity that ensues when Earnhardt wears a hat that the fans can't purchase.
But fear not, Junior Nation, they're working on it: JRM officials tell me they're devising a plan to resolve the issue.
Please fill me in on why NASCAR hates Robby Gordon. Last year in Montreal was a black eye for the sanctioning body and now they go and do it again. Robby switches from Ford to Dodge two weeks before Daytona and has little time to prepare, give the guy a break.
Wouldn't common sense say more like 25 points/$25K and then maybe $75K to Gillett Evernham, which SUPPLIED Robby with the noses? As an established team you'd think GEM would know what's legal better than newbie Gordon.
What do you say, Marty, does Robby's appeal carry any weight or is there more to the story?
-- Chris Hall, Boise, Idaho
Gordon's case carries more weight than a big ol' Peterbilt 357 dump truck, Chris.
The part numbers for the two Dodge noses in question -- that of the Charger and that of the Avenger -- were precisely the same according to Gordon. And given that it's a manufacturer's part that the team doesn't produce, just installs, and, as you said, considering they'd just switched to Dodge from Ford the previous week, they have a very solid argument.
And NASCAR doesn't hate Gordon. Gordon told me that Mike Helton and John Darby explained to him that by the letter of the law they had to penalize him, but "urged" him to appeal.
There's really no question that 100 points and $100,000 is excessive in this case.
The infraction was found before the race car ever touched the track during Speedweeks. Last year, when Tony Eury Jr. was penalized for installing illegal wing brackets on the No. 8 Chevy at Darlington, the infraction was discovered during pre-race inspection on Saturday. Those are entirely different things.
And yes, the fender modifications to the Nos. 24 and 48 cars were found in pre-qualifying inspection last year at Sonoma, but those were blatant attempts to circumvent the rules. Gordon's mistake was not.
I miss your fantasy reports on NASCAR.com. They were awesome. The fans need the Mart Dawg update every week on who we should have in our lineups! Can you start giving us those thoughts somewhere on ESPN? It'd be fun to have you and Brad Daugherty face off in fantasy. We're two races into the year and I'm getting killed already -- I need some help!
-- Alex Boseman, San Antonio
That's hilarious, Alex. I'm not the best prognosticator out there by any measure. Matter of fact, I'm terrible. Brad would smoke me. But I'll try to start throwing a fantasy pick and a dark horse into my column each week just for you, man.
Vegas -- How can you go against Jimmie Johnson? In six career races there he's won three times, including last year -- the first on the track's new, high-banked configuration -- and nearly won at Fontana last weekend. His average finish at Vegas is sixth.
Easy pick, right? Yeah, too easy. So I'm going with Matt Kenseth. His average finish out there is 7.6, and he finished fourth there last year on the new track.
Dark horse -- Brian Vickers. He had a very consistent car during testing and is enjoying a helluva start to the season. I need Vickers to perform well. He's on my team. Denny Hamlin's my lead driver, so when he hit the Auto Club River -- and subsequently the fence -- last weekend at Fontana it set me way back.
Speaking of Hamlin's misfortune. ...
I understand the fans want to see a race in its entirety but they are three hours east of a huge chunk of the country. A 1 a.m. ET restart is ridiculous -- I am going to bed. It is 12:13 am here and I need my sleep.
Do you think Dale Jr. was right when he said NASCAR made the wrong call in starting the race when they did, given that, as soon as he got in the middle of an accident, they found enough water seeping up through the asphalt to cause a one hour-plus delay to dry the track further.
Junior said cars were sliding around the whole time (of the 21 laps that he ran). Doesn't that say the water was there the whole time and simply got its first semi-wattage victim at Lap 6 (Denny Hamlin) and its highest wattage victim at Lap 21 (Junior)? Thanks for all of your great insights!
-- Jason Porta, Mechanicsburg, Pa.
I'd have been the first to criticize NASCAR for the decision to start the race -- and thought it was dumb Sunday night. But that was before I spoke with Jeff Burton early Monday morning, Jason. Burton gave me insight only a driver can give.
Burton told me that when NASCAR decided to start the race that track conditions were just fine. He told me, in fact, they'd started races before in worse conditions with no issue.
However, the further they went Sunday evening the worse the track got. Burton isn't sure why.
And he also told me that NASCAR was waiting to hear drivers complain and none did until Hamlin hit the fence and complained on television. NASCAR, Burton said, counts on driver feedback. Burton explained how hard it is for drivers to see vivid detail out of the windshields on the new cars. It's difficult to decipher track conditions. He said the windshields at Fontana were "pocked up," i.e., stippled, within five laps. The track was a lot like Darlington, very abrasive to the tires and front ends of the cars.
So you can blame NASCAR all day long but it's unfair. NASCAR couldn't win. If they called it early, the fans would've raised cane. If they kept everyone there all night, the crews and drivers would raise cane.
And ultimately it's about the fans. That may seem hokey or trite, but it's the truth.
Great piece on Ryan Newman and his dad last week. I thought it was ironic that Newman talked about being at the '93 Daytona 500 -- that was the race that Ned Jarrett called Dale Jarrett home on the final lap. I was in Daytona on Sunday listening to Newman's radio the whole race, and that last lap, listening to Newman's father call him home, reminded me of that '93 race with the Jarretts.
I just wish I could listen to it again, because, like Ryan said, you could hear the tears flowing. Quick questions: Is Ryan Newman the first college graduate to win the Daytona 500? And how come David Pearson was missing onstage when they introduced the living winners of the 500?
I was in the infield and he was one of the guys I was looking forward to seeing, but it turned out he was the only one missing?
-- Brady Smith, Laurel, Md.
To best I can tell, Brady, yes, Newman is the only college graduate to win the Daytona 500. Several folks thought Derrike Cope, 1990 Daytona 500 winner, was a college grad, but that's not the case. He attended Whitman College in Washington and starred on the baseball team before blowing out his knee in his senior year.
Cope told me he quit school at that time.
As for Pearson, Daytona International Speedway officials told me he had an unexpected emergency back home in South Carolina that required his return. Thus he was unable to be in Daytona for the celebration, and was not in attendance.
OK, folks, that's my time this week. "Stroker Ace" is on CMT. Phenomenal film. Stroker's driver seat has as many safety features as my computer chair. And I love the electric red satin jackets, man. Tim Richmond and Harry Gant should've won Academy Awards.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
Sure, Junior is a happy man these days as the newest driver at Hendrick Motorsports. But the man he replaced is pretty happy, too, as the points leader in the Cup and Truck series, writes Marty Smith.