Kittie Allison / Kasey Kahne Here
Kevin Harvick / Matt Kenseth Here
Kelly Bires / Scott Wimmer Here
Matt Kenseth by Fr. Dale Grubba for dwgracepix.com – March 10, 2009
Sometimes when you are picking the driver who will win a race it might be good to keep in mind the crew chief as well, unless it is Kyle Busch who won Nationwide races with six different crew chiefs last year. In many instances it is the crew chief that gives the driver a certain edge when it comes to winning.
Matt Kenseth touched upon this when asked about what the Hendrick teams have that others don’t. Kenseth feels it’s not necessarily anything Hendrick has. According to Kenseth if you really examine it it’s the chemistry of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, and the team.
“Taking into account the fact that Jeff Gordon won a championship after Ray Evernham left the team, compare Jeff Gordon’s stats with Ray Evernham and without Ray Evernham,” Kenseth states. “There is a huge difference. I think Jimmie and Chad have the same thing going. The chemistry is so good. Even if there is a time when they don’t get along they understand each other’s language. They are able to get the best out of each other and make that work. I think that is what everyone searches for. It is not that the Hendrick organization is better than Roush, RCR, or Gibbs. They all have good stuff.”
“Do you think,” Kenseth continues, “Jimmie is better than Jeff who has eighty wins and championships?
“Look at Carl Edwards away from Bob Osborne and Carl Edwards with Bob Osborne.” The numbers are drastically different. I don’t think Carl won a race without Bob. When he got Bob back on top of the box they took off winning races again. They won nine races last year in the same organization with the same equipment. There is a lot to be said about finding that combination that works not just for driver and crew chief, but the whole team.”
Kenseth then touched on the combination of Kurt Busch and Jimmy Fennig. “They were unstoppable,” he adds. “Split them apart and it has been tougher on both of them.”
Then there was the successful combination of Robbie Reiser and Matt Kenseth. “I knew (it was going to be successful) from the minute we got together,” Kenseth claims. “But that was a long time ago, twelve years.”
Looking back. Looking forward. “We needed to change a few things,” Kenseth claims. “To get a little more enthusiasm, liven things up a bit.”
Kenseth feels that his new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer will do just that. “Drew is young. He has never done the Cup deal before. He has been real successful in the Nationwide Series. Last year he turned Carl Edwards’ program around. They won all those races and came from behind to almost win the championship.
“The biggest problem last year was we took too much time away from Chip working on race cars and made him do the rest of the duties. Our performance was hurt because of it. Chip and I talked about it for a long time before we talked to anyone else. He was totally on board with it.” Kenseth feels that having Chip back concentrating on cars and Drew as crew chief is the best of both worlds.
“You never know but I think changing the personnel around was the first step in making a run for the championship. The equipment is good enough. Carl won nine races last year. Greg won a couple. Chip Bolin and I have great chemistry, but the whole thing as a unit wasn’t as good as it needed to be. This gives Chip more time to work on the race cars, which he is really good at, and get somebody in there to put a little spark in the deal and have better chemistry as a group.”
Asked to pick the 2009 champion Kenseth stated, “I’ll pick Jimmie and Chad every year until they prove they are not going to win. I’ve picked Jimmie the last four years. Jimmie is under-rated every year.
“To beat them you have to do everything almost perfect. Get in the Chase. Have almost a perfect last ten weeks. They don’t make many mistakes.”
But Kenseth hasn’t ruled himself out. “I feel as good about my team as I ever have,” Kenseth said with renewed enthusiasm as the season got underway. Victories in the first two races gave validity to his claim.
Paul Menard by Fr. Dale Grubba for dwgracepix.com - March 10, 2009
During the off season Wisconsin’s Paul Menard made the switch from DEI to Robert Yates Racing. It is a big switch personally and professionally. He left a lot of friends at DEI and now is in the process of making new friends. His first introduction to the Roush Fenway and Robert Yates teams was at a test in Rockingham.
“It is amazing how all the teams work together so well,” Menard says. “When I look over the fence at the Roush Fenway guys they are all sharing information.”
The switch to the COT has been a relatively easy one for Menard. “I’ve always enjoyed it,” states Menard. “The car doesn’t stick as good. In a straight line you seem to go faster. In the corners you have to slow down more. It’s just a different animal. It’s fun to drive because it doesn’t stick as well. You’re fighting it pretty much every lap. The biggest struggle is trying to figure out how the front geometry works. Getting the suspension tuned properly. Feeding back information to the crew that permits them to do that is the hardest part of it. Just driving the car is fun.”
How does driving the COT compare to ice racing, something that Menard did in his early days? “Atlanta in the spring is pretty close to ice racing in January. It’s pretty slippery. The old car seemed to get tighter as the run went on. This car gets looser as the run goes on, which kind of brings some of that ice racing experience back.”
For Menard one of the biggest misconceptions about Cup racing is that drivers ride around for 400 laps and then race the last 100 laps. “This is totally not true,” Menard claims. “Every lap is a qualifying lap. Cup drivers are driving 100% every lap.” When Menard was in the Busch Series he says half of the field could do that. In the Cup Series all 43 drivers can drive every lap flat out and get away with it. The level of competition is so much stronger.
The race at Talladega in which Menard qualified in the top ten, led a lot of laps, and ran strong all day was the high point of the 2008 season. He came home with what he likes to call a third place finish.
Was he satisfied with the 2008 season? “We started off on the right foot,” he says. “Then we lost it somewhere around the beginning of the summer and could never get it back. I had big hopes when the season started.”
What would Menard consider a successful 2009 season? He answers, “If going into Richmond, the last race before the Chase, we are in contention to make the Chase. That would be successful. I think we were 26th in points last year. This year we are looking for big improvements.”
Neophyte Fans First Encounter With Racing
The litmus test for whether or not a track is running a successful program? It may boil down to a neophyte race fan watching the actions through their fingers so that they can cover their eyes if the action gets too intense.
Sunday after mass the pastor was visiting with a member of the congregation, eighth-grade Molly Hopkins and her mother Mary.
“Molly, I’ve been thinking. You have this devotion to bull riding. You are only on that bull for a very short period of time. You might be very interested in midget racing on the dirt. The bucking and bouncing around is extended over thirty or fifty laps. It has to be a lot more thrilling.” At this point her mother, Mary, threatens to kill the pastor but agrees to making a trip to Sun Prairie, if for no other reason than the pastor does the invocation at said track.
“There is only one precaution. Don’t sit low in the stands even though those seats are empty and look so inviting. Only gladiators with lexan or Plexiglas shields sit there,” the pastor advises.
Evening comes and Mary and Molly arrive at Angell Park accompanied by three school mates, Katie Stel and her two sisters seventh grade Melissa and fourth grade Amy, and their mother Lynn. None have ever seen a race. Up to this point none of them has any idea of what racing is all about. First impressions are lasting.
Push trucks spring into action and engines sputter to life. “These cars don’t have starters?” they query. The midgets idle their way around as the track is packed and then there is a taste of things to come as the flagman throws the green and engines roar for a few brief laps.
Time trials pass and our fans witness the feverish action of crews preparing their cars and getting them to the push off area.
Time for the National anthem and the invocation. “Nick Lundgreen cart-wheeled down the back-straight. He must have been twenty feet in the air when he went over the third turn wall. All you could see was four wheels and a belly pan! Lord, be with us in those moments. Amen.” Does this trigger a sense of anticipation of things to come in our new fans? This isn’t about thanking God for a beautiful day as one sits on a park bench watching ducks float around on a pond. Divine intervention might be needed before the night is over.
In the lull before the races start the pastor connects with Mary Hopkins via cell phone. She promptly informs him that he is insane! He accepts that and then directs her attention to one of the tall metal light poles to her left. Sitting beneath it is Hope Waelti, wife of Brandon Waelti, one of the top drivers. “When you get there tell her if she agrees to be the principal of our school she can have off for the Chili Bowl. She’ll know who sent you!” The four kids are off on a mission looking for a baby stroller containing a baby daughter Cambria and her mother Hope.
The racing begins and the heat races and thirty-lap feature are extremely competitive, with side by side action and slide jobs something to behold. Ambulances and wreckers spring into action with their lights flashing when two flips occur. Later Mary Hopkins admits she watched the early stages through her fingers, swearing someone was going to be killed at any moment. It took a while before her hands dropped to her waist.
After the races six new fans make their way into the infield and head for Brandon Waelti’s car. Their pastor has clued the crew into their visit and asked if Molly, the bull riding aficionado, can sit in the car. The crew smiles at the idea of a girl and bull riding. Consider what parish she is from and who the pastor is, they are informed.
When they arrive they are greeted and Molly gets her opportunity to sit in the car and have her picture taken with her mother standing by. After some pleading on behalf of the crew Mary gets her chance. “You can only turn down an offer like that so long,” she concedes. Both are surprised to discover that these cars have no doors and you have to drop down from above. Brandon Waelti T-shirts are on sale for five dollars this evening so Hope digs out one for each of the girls while Brandon signs autographs. Fans are milling about everywhere.
Later the Hopkins’ and Stel’s are introduced to Wayne Huston, who along with his brother Dwight, own Scott Hatton’s car. The Hopkins own riding horses. Wayne is taking twelve of his Belgians to the Wisconsin State Fair for competition. They all have something in common and it makes for great conversation. The Hopkins promise to look for Wayne’s stalls at the fair.
The experience has been an exciting one. “Racing people are so nice,” Mary observes. The kids talk about it during the hour ride home. The next day Molly’s cousin wants her T-shirt but he doesn’t get it! The girls are going to wear their Brandon Waelti T’shirts to church the next Sunday.
They could easily become Danica Patrick fans.
When these girls are old enough to date, the boy who asks may be surprised to find out they want to go to Angell Park in Sun Prairie! Click on picture for full sized view.
Scott Wimmer at the Slinger Nationals July 15,
The Slinger Nationals provided an excellent opportunity to catch up with Wausau’s Scott Wimmer and be brought up to date on the latest happenings in the life of the younger Richard Childress driver.
Wimmer has been coming to the Nationals since 1994, missing only a couple when he first moved south. The Nationals are an opportunity to see old friends and those who watched him in the early days of his career. Besides running against some of the greatest short track drivers in the State he enjoys visiting with the fans after the race.
On this occasion he would drop out of the feature early, but he took time to reflect on a high point and a low point which both occurred in a year that the Nationals were run on two dates. The high point was back in about 1998 when he finished second to Richie Bickle in the first round. Wimmer had hopes of winning the overall title when he found out that Bickle had crashed at Indianapolis and wouldn’t be present for the last segment. He was running second when a rocker arm broke ending his night.
“The high point was finishing second to Bickle in the first round,” Wimmer recalls, “the second segment was the low point, breaking the rocker arm. Every Nationals has a different twist.”
Wimmer was disappointed to find out that Dick Trickle was absent. “I love seeing him race,” Wimmer says, “and more importantly, talking to him. My Dad says this has to be the first year in fifty years that Trickle hasn’t raced something. We just celebrated Richard Petty’s fiftieth anniversary at Chicago. Trickle has been in a race car driving for fifty years. Hopefully next year we will see him back.”
“It is a real experience to drive for Richard Childress,” states Wimmer. First, there is the history. Richard was a driver who became an owner and has had great drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Second, he is a hands on owner, something that is missing in NASCAR today. He is there every day pushing his employees to be better.
“Richard’s there at 6 am, if he is not out of town, and he is probably the last one to leave,” Wimmer observes.
The complex is located in Childress’ hometown of Welcome, NC. and consists of about a half a million square feet in 14 buildings. It is about an hour out of Charlotte. “There are people who were there back when Earnhardt was winning championships,” Wimmer says. “Everybody I work with loves being there.”
When Wimmer looks back at last year it was a great one for him. He ran up front and enjoyed a lot of top ten finishes. He and his co-drivers won the (Busch) Nationwide car owners championship for Childress. “Jeff (Burton) was a great teammate who really helped me out when I got in the car. I was disappointed not to win a race, but the goal was the win the owners’ championship. I didn’t take us out of any races by making stupid mistakes or pushing too far.”
Scott admits it is tough to share a car. “I want to be in a race car every week and I’m not able to do that. It is hard to go to a race track and not race. Whenever you’re sitting out you are not learning. It is really tough to jump back in there and go as fast as you did in the past. You have to relearn, rethink things. But when you have good teammates and a good car owner they make it easier. They have a lot of confidence in me. They know I might struggle a bit right off the bat but I’ll get there.”
This year has not been an easy one for the Childress Nationwide race team. “I was able to win at Nashville, but we have been inconsistent. We have been working hard in our engine and chassis departments. We have been testing. It is not a lack of effort.
“Jeff (Burton) has been a real important part of the team. He is so intelligent about race cars and how to talk to people about them.
“I’m looking forward to the second half of the season. I think we will be strong.”
A lot of Wimmer’s time is consumed testing for Childress. “The crew chiefs and engineers collect a lot of notes. They are typing all day on computers. I try not to be too in depth about things because I think you can get lost. I try to be real specific with my answers and tell them exactly what I felt. I leave it at that. I don’t make any suggestions. I tell them whether it was better or worse.
“Then I go back to the shop and talk to Jeff or Kevin (Harvick). I tell them what we tried and changed. It’s fun. I enjoy doing it because I learn some pretty neat stuff. But at the same time it can get boring. You are there logging laps by yourself. Everybody wants to race.”
Since Wimmer once built his own cars he finds it interesting to be surrounded by talented crew chiefs and engineers as they experiment with some of the things he has thought about or tried in previous years. “I see what I messed up in the last 15 years of racing.”
What are the most miles Wimmer has done in a day? “I’ve run 600 miles testing motors. You go until you run out of gas, come in for gas and a change of tires, and go until you run out of gas again. I’ve done that all day long. Those are pretty brutal days.”
As always it’s great to have the opportunity to sit and listen to one of our Wisconsin drivers as they describe their careers. Wisconsin has much to be proud of.
Kurt Busch by Fr. Dale Grubba
The word maturity is an important one when the topic is Kurt Busch. Has he matured? Has the move from Roush to Penske helped in that regard? For Busch the transition has been beneficial. “I think it was taking a step back and looking at the big picture,” he observes. “Listening to Roger Penske about what I needed to do as an individual really helped me. Racing is a cutthroat, tough business. Roger has been a calming hand.
“You win races and you win a championship and you never expect things to change because you are the same person, but the more people you meet the more you realize there is more to it than just racing the car. I think I came to understand a little bit more of the business side and it’s helped things.
“When you go through enough bad stuff you eventually learn. You do things that will be more appreciated, whether it’s my new Kurt Busch Foundation or with great sponsors like Miller Lite, Mobil 1, Dodge, or Gillette. There are so many people I’ve worked with that have helped me mature into a better person.”
Then, echoing the philosophy of Roger Penske, Busch states, “If you surround yourself with good people it turns you into a better person.”
In 2004 Kurt Busch won the first Chase Championship. It was very close and exciting, everything NASCAR had dreamed when they made the change. In 2007 Jimmie Johnson was unconscious, blowing everyone away in his quest for the title. How tough is it for a championship caliber driver and team to see someone be that much better than everyone else? What do you do? Say, “If I lean on the car a little more…” or throw up your hands in resignation and ask, “What can we do?” Johnson left everybody scratching their heads.
“The performance he put together is the type you need to win championships,” Busch observes when he reflects on Johnson’s drive to the Nextel Cup championship in 2007. All the resources he has at Hendrick Motorsports helps him do that job. If I felt we were weak, like not performing on pit road like I thought we should, then you have to think of how you can make yourself better.
“Myself as a driver, I know I can learn more things and challenge myself. My crew chief and the engineering staff is doing the same thing because if you are not on the top you are clawing your way up there to beat whoever is.”
Does not being on top take some of the fun out of it? Is it hard to smile and suppress your true feelings? “It is not any fun when you have those bad days,” Busch admits, “but the longer you are around you realize that you have bad days as well as good days. The greats are able to knock off the peaks and valleys and stay on an even, consistent keel all the time. I think being around a bit more has helped me.”
How much of a role has experience played in Busch’s career? “When you are starting out things are so new and uncomfortable you don’t know what to expect,” Busch observes. “So you are challenging yourself to grab information and learn from it. Now, being around a few years, you challenge yourself to get better at what you have done in the past and how you can win at a specific track, for instance, I haven’t won at Daytona or Indy yet. I know Bristol. I think I’ve got it under control, but you can’t rest on what you are good at. You have to pick up the areas where you haven’t won or are struggling at.”
One of the things that seemed to turn things around for Kurt Busch in 2007 was when Pat Tryson became his crew chief. What has it meant to Busch to have him on board? Busch admits that it has helped. The two, although on different teams, had worked together indirectly at Roush Racing.
“We are both straight forward guys,” Busch says about their styles. “We don’t sugar coat anything. If there is a weak area technically or personally we address it right away. We are comfortable doing that. It led to success right away. We hope we can build our communication even further; because you can’t stop learning, get stationary. You always have to keep moving forward. Pat’s got that enthusiasm, that passion like I do. We’d like to see better things.”
How has getting married changed his life? “It gives me a great sense of stability to have Eva by my side,” Kurt says. “She is part of the team. She loves to interact with the group and help give me insight at the end of a race. Of course during the week there are the home-cooked meals and time spent with her and the family. It definitely has come full circle for me. When I first came in I was doing it all on my own with a buddy out of an apartment.”
Are there plans for a baby? “We have a plan put in place for a few years down the road,” Kurt adds. “Right now it’s full tilt racing. She knows that. She’s number one in my life. I consider myself number two, but she has been incredible enough to let me treat racing as number one.”
At the end of 2008 when the checkered flag falls at Homestead what is going to be a successful season for Kurt Busch?
“We hope we’ve used the foundation of a seventh place finish in 2007 to go on and win some races in 2008, especially at some new tracks, as well as pole positions. We want to build consistency. We want to be one of those guys in the top five, top ten every week, able to lead laps and bounce back from mistakes. I think that’s where Hendrick Motorsports did so well. If they had a problem in a race, the next thing you knew Johnson was driving into victory lane. Case in point, at Atlanta Johnson didn’t even have an eighth place car and he won the race. Those are the kind of days we want to have.”