Commentary

More Junior, more Smoke and a special fondness for the No. 28 Thunderbird

Wanna know what Marty Smith is thinking these days? Our readers do. He shares his insight on Junior, Smoke and his favorite Cup driver of all time.

Updated: March 12, 2008, 2:10 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Whoa … huge week for me, folks. All six Door-To-Door readers stepped it up with a barrage of questions -- must have been at least two apiece. I am honored. Let's get straight to it.

[+] EnlargeMark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
AP Photo/John BazemoreWhy does Dale Earnhardt Jr. get so much ink? Because he can.

Marty,

Dale Jr. has to be the best story of the year so far, man. He's taken the pressure from the move to Hendricks head-on, and he's doing great! Junior Nation is loving life. DEI was awful, and anybody who thinks Junior sold out is just stupid. You have to agree, man! 88 in '08!

-- Stanley Thomas Cline, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Slow down, Stanley Thomas Cline. Whoa-'er back. (Great name, man. Do you remember Earl Thomas Conley? "Holdin' Her, and Lovin' You" … great jam.)

Anyway, Stan, don't go anointing Earnhardt champion yet. Yes, his start is very impressive. In fact, to quell the doubters, he HAD to start this well. And, interestingly, he's done so relatively quietly thanks to Kyle Busch, a suspect oil cooler lid and a bum tire compound.

An aside that sticks in my craw: Heaven forbid, I just wrote about Dale Jr. AGAIN. After last week's column about adidas, a deluge of criticism poured in, like this sterling submission on the D2D message board from a guy named dulli68: "Wow! Marty Smith with a Dale Jr. story! Who would have thought!" Great analysis, dude.

Look, I get it. I write about Junior a lot. But am I alone here? Doesn't everyone? There are a million great stories in NASCAR, and we try hard to spread it out. I've written about Doug Yates and Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. and Jeremy Mayfield in this space, but Junior is ALWAYS a story. You don't see those other cats on the cover of TV Guide, do you? If Earnhardt relieves himself, somebody's writing about it.

He's NASCAR's Alex Rodriguez -- THE story whether he triumphs, chokes or just goes down to the Hop In for some cream. I'm glad that's off my chest.

Now, on to the most impressive story of the year thus far from my seat: Brian Vickers.

After an awful first season with Team Red Bull, The Sherriff came out guns a-blazin' in Year 2. In 2007, he failed to qualify for two of the first four races. This year, he's made them all -- from outside the top 35. I asked him recently to describe the pressure involved in having to qualify on speed every week.

"I don't think I can," he said. "I'm not sure anyone can."

It doesn't look like he'll have to worry about that much this time next week. Heading to Bristol, where he's always performed well, Vickers is ninth in points and on his way to earning a guaranteed starting position among the top 35 for the first time in Team Red Bull history.

And he's not settling for just making races, either. On average this season, he improves 21 positions in each start, and last weekend at Atlanta marched from 35th to ninth.

And Vickers in on my fantasy team. He was the 26th driver of 40 taken in my league draft. I stole him, folks.

Marty,

Is it the tire, or the car [lack of downforce] or both? Thirteen cars on the lead lap at the finish is not a competitive race. Junior put at least 17 cars a lap down on his initial run. It looks like you have to run the setup you start with, because very few cars improved once they finally got to where they could in the racing order [first through 43rd].

I still think Kyle says it best, "The car sucks!" Yes, it's safer and that is great, but the engineers set it up, and the one who hits it best wins. OK, I guess if you like F1.

-- Dave Norris, Idaho

When Tony Stewart lambasted Goodyear for its "pathetic" effort at Atlanta, this instantly became the issue du jour for NASCAR fans, by a substantial margin. (Suddenly, folks didn't care so much about how oil coolers work.) Dozens of questions and comments filtered in about tires. Fact is, Dave, it's not all on Goodyear.

It's not Goodyear's fault that NASCAR implemented a new car, thereby rendering years of tire data obsolete for everyone. It's not Goodyear's fault that, in the past, teams pushed camber settings and air pressures far past Goodyear's recommendations and (shocking!) blew tires.

But that doesn't mean Stewart doesn't have a point.

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A combination of factors made Atlanta ridiculous -- a very conservative tire that didn't wear, the new car, which Jeff Gordon said is the "toughest race car in the world to build tires for," and an abrasive track. The drivers were out of control the entire day -- "wrecking every corner" in driver jargon.

Greg Biffle said it was the least amount of grip he's ever experienced in a race car, but it wasn't the worst tire on which he's ever competed. (That distinction goes to a tire used at Lowe's Motor Speedway a few years back -- he couldn't recall which year -- and the one used last season at Las Vegas, just after the reconfiguration of the track surface, when, he said, "You're going along and all of a sudden the tire's gone and you're in the fence backwards because it gave you no warning.")

Biffle said the Atlanta tire was controllable, but you couldn't just mash the gas. The tires spun up off the corner and even down the straightaway. Drivers had to feather the throttle to right the car all day. When Biffle and Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, drivers who excel with loose race cars, are out of control, you know it's pretty wild out there.

Biffle admitted the tire was too hard, which disallowed for lateral and horizontal grip, but he didn't just bash Goodyear. He said it does no good and that they'd fix the tire with or without the criticism. In fact, he somewhat came to Goodyear's defense, and with great insight.

"Let's face it, Goodyear doesn't have the luxury of going to the racetrack and testing tire after tire after tire," he said Monday at Darlington Raceway during a break from tire testing. "So to their defense, what happens is, the temperature and the sun have so much to do with what happens when you go tire test. Are the conditions, right now, exactly how they're going to be when we come back and race? No, they're not.

"So you've got to have some safety built in it, but at the same time you've got to have a tire that we can get aggressive and compete on. And we just felt like the car wasn't dug into the racetrack enough for race car drivers that want to turn the wheel and use the throttle. We weren't happy with the way it got hold of the racetrack.

"It's unfortunate that we get put in that position that we can't show up and test enough to know what exact tire we need. That's the problem. And it could be as extreme as going from a 35 degree day to a 70 degree day. You may not have the right tire. On a 35 degree day you're going to cord the tire, [on a] 70 degree day you're not going to have enough grip. How can you predict that? There is some give and take to the tire we have to deal with."

One major complaint at Atlanta was that Goodyear brought a different tire to the race than was tested at Atlanta last August. Ryan Newman said the tire tested last year wouldn't have held up Sunday.

All said, a group effort between the drivers, teams and Goodyear is necessary to make it better.

"We have to look at all sides of this and try to give the folks that are doing their jobs the ability and constructive criticism to try to do it better," Gordon said.

It needs to get better. Many fans were bored Sunday.

Similarly …

Marty,

I'm a huge Tony Stewart fan. I love his old-school attitude and that he's not a butt-kissing whiner like a lot of these guys are like Jeff Gordon. But why does he always seem to create trouble for himself with comments like [he made at Atlanta]?

-- John Ruffus, Justin, Texas

Stewart went a bit too far this time, John, made it personal. His fellow competitors, namely your boy Gordon, said so. But in my opinion, he doesn't say these types of inflammatory comments just to hear his head rattle.

He means it, and NASCAR often listens.

Remember his rant last year about debris cautions and professional wrestling?

We don't see as many debris cautions at the end of races anymore. Just an observation …

Hey Marty,

Do the race officials and all the safety crews also travel from race to race or does NASCAR man those positions from each local area?

-- Robin Swanson, Tracy, Calif.

NASCAR officials -- some 200 in number -- are full-time employees of the sanctioning body and travel the entire circuit, Robin. They work their tails off, too -- first to arrive, last to leave. Every single day.

But the safety crews are local emergency personnel commissioned by NASCAR and directed by NASCAR-employed medical staff. Two NASCAR officials and a local paramedic are in the crash chase vehicle during every race -- four at superspeedways, in two separate vehicles. Locally based fire and safety crews are coordinated by NASCAR's Mike Phillips from the scoring tower.

There has been considerable debate in the past over whether NASCAR should employ a full-time medical/crash team that knows the drivers personally, including their medical histories.

Other racing series do this, but NASCAR remains steadfast in its belief that local medical personnel are better suited to treat drivers in case of emergency, given their knowledge of local facilities and statutes.

Marty,

I have looked all over the net for the black and grey M&M's Racing hat being worn by Kyle Busch, but can't find it anywhere. Any help would be great. My little brother really wants one, and I thought it would be a great birthday present. Thanks!

-- James, San Jose, Calif.

Bad news, James -- just two of those caps exist, made custom for Busch and his crew chief, Steve Addington, at their specific requests. The folks at Joe Gibbs Racing tell me, though, that M&M's isn't so fond of the custom lid, so new ones were made: same hat, colorful logo.

Speaking of The Rowdy One …

Marty,

It has been reported that the Toyotas have more horsepower. Why are they allowed to be SO far ahead of the Chevys, Fords and Dodge cars? The discrepancy in HP is SO apparent in all three series. I thought NASCAR was all about "parity," so what gives with the extra Toyota HP? That extra HP is what's making Kyle fast right now. It won't be long before he is trouble.

P.S. Remember it was Kyle Busch who got his own butt released from HMS. He [his agent] who went looking for another job while still under contract with HMS. Can you say BREACH? He was an embarrassment to Rick, HMS and sponsors, with his antics leaving the track at Texas, and his actions in the All-Star race. I even stopped buying M&M's because they sponsor him now. I wouldn't want my son acting like Kyle. Oh yeah, he does, but my son is only 20 months old. Anyway, you guys in the booth/media spewing your praise on Kyle is just making him more dangerous on the track. Seems like all of you guys have forgotten the Daytona truck race, where he wrecked a lot of good trucks. He hasn't changed, just has more HP.

-- Mary, Camarillo, Calif.

Not a Kyle Busch fan, huh Mary? Let's break this response into parts. First, Toyota's engine advantage. Kevin Harvick discussed it at Las Vegas.

"I think everybody in the garage is down on horsepower compared to what the Toyotas are," Harvick said. "I mean, in the [Nationwide Series] it is almost a joke as to how much more power they make compared to everyone else.

"Hopefully that is the reason that we put these inserts in the [Nationwide] motors is so we can keep the fields even and, obviously, the whole field is not completely stupid. They have all been here a long time, that particular brand makes substantially more power than anybody else in the garage, so it has got something to do with the parts and pieces that they have compared to everybody else."

Do they have the same advantage in the Cup Series?

"Absolutely," Harvick said. "They have the same power advantage they have in the [Nationwide] garage; it just doesn't show up as much, because there are more good teams to overcome that.

"Right now, everybody is trying to play a little catch-up on the power side of it to get to where they need to be. Those engine packages are all brand-new, so right now it is not good for anybody in the garage unless you have a Toyota."

Should NASCAR be looking into it?

"I don't think it is hidden," Harvick continued. "All the engine dyno numbers are pretty apparent. I think it is all public knowledge, if I am not mistaken. It is all pretty apparent -- there is a distinct problem between both divisions."

As for Busch's attitude, you're not saying anything I didn't say -- or most anyone else who's been raving about Busch hasn't said. Everyone acknowledges that he made some dumb decisions, but one key point I hoped to make is that everyone is an idiot at 19 yeas old. I'm not excusing his attitude, just trying to offer an alternative perspective.

Martdawg,

I couldn't help but notice a very tall guy at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was wearing a Wells Fargo crew shirt. Is he a new member of Kyle Petty's pit crew? You're the man, dude."

-- DMP Hovis, Mooresville, N.C.

Hovis! His name is John Isner, the 93rd-ranked ATP tennis pro in the world, and yeah, he's tall. Most of the media types presumed he was a basketball player. He's 6-foot-9, after all, and can bring it -- he serves the ball 140 mph. He's just 22 years old and was a four-time All-American at the University of Georgia.

Now that you have his entire life story, he was at the race as a guest of Petty Enterprises, and to promote a tennis tournament in Vegas.

Marty,

First, I love your stuff. I have been reading your articles since the Nascar.com Mailbag days. I noticed during Nationwide Series qualifying that Tony Stewart, for just a little while, was wearing a "Racing With Jesus" Morgan Shepherd hat.

Of course, I know that Tony is a prankster and does what he wants, but I never guessed he would replace one of his sponsor hats with a religious message. This may seem like an insignificant message, but I am just wondering what the deal was with that?

I think Morgan should hire ol' Tony to drive some life back into his team. Fat chance for that. Props to Morgan for fighting the good fight and keeping it going.

-- Doug Turnbull, Atlanta

Interesting question, Doug. I hadn't noticed that, so I inquired with Stewart's people for you. I'm told Stewart and Shepherd briefly swapped hats while waiting for Nationwide Series qualifying to end at Daytona. Stewart donned Shepherd's "Racing with Jesus" hat, and Shepherd wore Stewart's Armor All hat. It was nothing more than two guys clowning around, and lasted all of five minutes. Those five minutes obviously made an impression, however.

Marty,

I am new to NASCAR and have been wondering. What is that object that is on the roof of the cars near the top middle of the windshield?

-- Andre, Colorado Springs, Colo.

It's a camera, Andre. When you see the view of an accident or near-miss from atop a car, it's from that camera. Only a handful of those cameras are active during any given race, but all cars have them to ensure aerodynamic parity.

Marty,

Hey, who is your favorite NASCAR Cup driver of all time? And one more thing -- did Dale Sr. ever drive the Busch or Truck series?

-- Danielle, hometown unknown

Davey Allison is my favorite driver of all time, Danielle. Davey was a lot like Matt Kenseth -- always consistent and with underappreciated talent. I loved the No. 28 Thunderbird, too -- especially the white-front, black-back, metallic-gold No. 28 Thunderbird. That was the baddest car in NASCAR history.

As for Big E's exploits in the lower NASCAR series, he ran 136 Busch Series races but never a Truck event. In 1989, Earnhardt ran 14 of 29 Busch races, the most he ever competed in that series in a single year. Overall, he won 21 races at the Busch level, and finished in the top five in nearly half of his starts. In 1986 he competed in 11 Busch races, winning five of them. His average finish that year was 4.9.

That's it for this week, guys. Time to go pack for Thunder Valley. I appreciate you.

All six of you.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.