Commentary

Funny how traditions take root in NASCAR

Homestead blog Saturday

Updated: November 15, 2008, 4:24 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

All times Eastern

4 p.m.

Jimmie Johnson's speed held up as fastest in the first Cup practice. Now, Happy Hour is half gone, with teams honing their race setups, and Denny Hamlin is quickest.

But Hamlin, at 164.429 mph in Happy Hour, is more than 3 mph off Johnson's 167.665 of the first session.

So Johnson ended the day as fastest in practice overall. He was fourth quickest in Happy Hour, at 163.339. Just remember, crew chief Chad Knaus very rarely shows his hand in final practice.

We're all sitting and talking about how the past 24 hours show just how good Johnson, Knaus and the 48 team really are. They qualified 30th on Friday, and now they head into the race as the car to beat.

You couldn't blame them a bit if they lie back early in Sunday's race, and all the way through if Carl Edwards hangs in. But if Edwards should fall out, look for Knaus and Johnson to go for the win in the finale. That's the way they would love to three-peat.

2:23 p.m.

The Darrell Gwynn Foundation raised more than $100,000 Saturday morning with its seventh annual bass-fishing tournament for drivers and contributing fans on the speedway's infield lake.

Gwynn, the highly popular drag racer who was badly injured in a 1990 crash in England, has been bound to a wheelchair ever since, and his foundation raises money to provide sophisticated chairs for spinal cord injury victims who are needy.

Twenty drivers participated, each leading a team of four per boat. A guide and two paying participants completed each team.

"Twenty drivers -- and they all behaved," Gwynn cracked. "Nobody crashed anybody."

Ken Schrader's group won, with a combined catch of 5.56 pounds. Scott Wimmer had the biggest individual fish, 2.86 pounds.

Gwynn's foundation takes on the most difficult of needs, for the most expensive equipment. Representing the foundation during Sunday's prerace ceremonies will be Jina Yi, 21, who suffered severe spinal cord injuries at age 2 and was abandoned by her parents.

Yi now lives in a group home, and Gwynn's foundation purchased a chair for her that is so sophisticated it operates on "sip and puff" commands -- that is, just slight movements of the mouth.

The cost for that wheelchair: $30,000.

Gwynn's foundation will hold its next major fishing tournament on Daytona International Speedway's Lake Lloyd on Feb. 13, during Speedweeks.

1:40 p.m.

Oh, and another thing about this Nationwide cherry-picking -- and even cherry-picking all the way down into Trucks by Kyle Busch this year.

"You don't see NFL quarterbacks going back and playing in college games -- or even high school games," Richard Petty pointed out the other day.

***

Speedway president Curtis Gray reluctantly admitted just a few minutes ago that the paltry 65,000 seats here are not yet sold out for Sunday's race.

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage was bragging two weeks ago how his track draws a much bigger crowd for the third-from-last Chase race than Homestead does for the finale.

And Gossage assumed Homestead would sell out.

Now he might be really gloating, except that he didn't come close to selling out his 159,584 seats at Fort Worth, either.

***

Regardless of ticket sales, Homestead-Miami Speedway will host five -- count 'em -- season finale races next year: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks, plus IndyCars and the Rolex Sports Car Series.

The weather's nice, and Homestead-Miami boasts of Gray's ability and experience at hosting big events. But it doesn't hurt that Homestead is owned by International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family that owns NASCAR outright, plus founded the Rolex series, plus has enormous clout with the Indy Racing League because of IRL founder Tony George's heavy financial dependence on NASCAR's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway each year.

***

Sprint Cup practice has already been going seven minutes, and Jimmie Johnson already is fastest, at 167.665 mph.

Juan Pablo Montoya, a huge crowd favorite here, almost immediately scraped the wall. Damage to his Dodge doesn't look serious, but he went to the garage.

***

Carl Edwards is doing his best to keep up the heat on Clint Bowyer. Edwards qualified second at 168.151 mph, to Bowyer's 13th at 166.190 for the Nationwide Series race.

Bowyer's eighth-or-better clinch applies only if Edwards wins the race and leads the most laps. Anything less by Edwards, and Bowyer's job gets easier accordingly.

Prodigy Joey Logano, 18, is on the pole at 168.951, and those who believe this series should be developmental have half-baked hope for a moral victory.

But Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is of course vastly superior to anything the other young guys have. Besides, qualifying is one thing, and dealing with 11 full-time Cup guys in the race is quite another.

12:30 p.m.

Waiting for Nationwide qualifying to start, you think of what's right and what's wrong about that series.

What's nice is that there's a reasonable championship duel in this afternoon's Ford 300. Clint Bowyer leads Carl Edwards by 56 points, meaning Bowyer must finish eighth or better today to win the title.

This, compared to Jimmie Johnson's need to finish only 36th or better in Sunday's Ford 400, with his 141-point Cup lead over Edwards.

What's wrong is that for the third straight year, a Cup driver will win the Nationwide title. And that's a travesty.

NASCAR refuses to ban major leaguers from what should be its answer to Triple-A baseball -- a purely developmental series.

Because 11 full-time Cup drivers will try to make today's race, their presence overshadows -- no, overwhelms -- drivers who should be getting good, thorough looks, not only from team owners but from the media and public.

The prime example today is 18-year-old Marc Davis, the African-American driver closest to making a breakthrough in NASCAR, who'll have no chance in today's race, and will draw virtually no attention, in a mediocre Fitz Racing car, up against the big guns in their high-dollar rides.

NASCAR keeps caving to the track owners, who want the big names in their Saturday races to draw crowds.

But if Nationwide were truly developmental, it could develop a different kind of following -- fans and media who are seeking sneak previews of the talent just over the horizon from Cup.

This probably never will change, but I probably never will stop complaining about it.

***

How did the cherry-picking by Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series start? It sort of evolved from a seedling planted by the late Dale Earnhardt.

By the late '70s and early '80s, when Earnhardt was first breaking into Cup, what was then called NASCAR's Sportsman division -- later Busch, now Nationwide -- was almost on the rocks.

There was only one big race for Sportsman cars, the Saturday race before the Daytona 500.

But track mogul Bruton Smith, owner of only Charlotte Motor Speedway at the time, began thinking how much more money could be made at all the tracks if there were preliminary NASCAR races -- rather than just ARCA, which was a pretty junky series at the time.

Charlotte began putting emphasis on the Sportsman races, and Earnhardt was young and hungry and just loved to drive. So he would enter cars built by his first father-in-law, Robert Gee, and compete against the Sportsman mainstays of the time -- Jack Ingram, Tommy Ellis, Tommy Houston et al.

Earnhardt then began running the Saturday races at Daytona, and more and more Cup stars followed him in.

Then came the Busch Series, and what we came to call Buschwhacking began in earnest.

So far I haven't come up with a Nationwide equivalent of Buschwhacking, so let me know if you have a good idea.

11 a.m.

Funny how traditions take root, and how sense of place develops.

Taking the celebrated back way into Homestead-Miami Speedway -- celebrated now that Terry Blount has blabbed to the world what used to be a top media secret -- I grew more and more sentimental.

You see, I've watched those palm trees grow up. You take enough meandering trips through there, you begin to feel a bit proprietary about such things.

Some were but seedlings when Tony Stewart won the first two Cup races in a row here. By the time they were head-high, Bill Elliott came back from over the hill for his highly nostalgic win in 2001.

Some were shipped out young, to live on the narrower streets of Miami, as Greg Biffle three-peated at HMS from 2004 through 2006.

But now, many that remain are more than 20 feet high, ready to grace broad avenues, and I'm … well … proud of them.

If this sounds a little nutso to you, just remember that there's plenty of time to dream up such things as you're bumping along those back roads through the nurseries, left and right and left and right and left and right and right and right and right. …

Come to think of it, I'm not mad at Terry anymore for telling you about the route. Just because you know about it doesn't mean you could find your way through it.

And even if you tried to go in, it's much harder, much spookier, at night. Our motorsports editor, K. Lee Davis, got lost back in there on race night of 2006 after taking a wrong turn.

He thought the alligators would get him for sure when he reached an area where the only thing above water was the road surface.

So he turned around and carefully retraced his route until he found the correct turn. Good thing he had plenty of gas in his rental car, or we might still be looking for him, speaking of the haunting legend of the Lost Editor. …

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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