Take a Chill Pill, Pal, and Enjoy the Ride

(Oct. 20, 1997) -- Ernie Irvan continues to bristle when reporters dare ask how he feels about taking a step down in his career by moving from Robert Yates Racing to MB2 Motorsports next season. Irvan, who specializes in bristling, shot back at a couple of recent questioners who had the audacity to suggest that a driver of his caliber would accept a ride in anything but top-of-the-line equipment. How can you ask such a question, Irvan will respond.

Well, Ernie, the Sparkster doesn't want to get you too upset here, but a quick scan through the results of this season will result in the discovery -- egads! -- that the MB2 Pontiac and driver Derrike Cope haven't exactly challenged for supremacy in Winston Cup racing this year.

We note only one top-10 finish and 11 finishes of 30th or worse. Robert Yates' cars seem to have done a little better than that this year, so even Sparky, who likes to believe in fantasy, is finding it a little difficult to imagine that Irvan is putting his new ride on the same plane as his about-to-be-former one.

So, hey, Ernie, relax. Get used to these kinds of questions.

There'll likely be more of them next year.

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Sparky is hearing Randy LaJoie's name linked to the driving vacancy at Petty Enterprises, and we hope it's not too serious.

Although LaJoie's joy in racing and his irreverent spin on things are sorely needed in Winston Cup's increasingly slick, corporate-driven culture, we'd like to see him stay in the Busch Grand National series a little longer.

We figure LaJoie is more fun with a front-line, championship-caliber Busch team than with a mid-range Winston Cup outfit that struggles to win. LaJoie has had the fun part of racing ripped from him in one sour Winston Cup experience, and he should return only in a proven situation.

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Sparky was MIGHTY happy to see Al Hoffman pick up his second NHRA Funny Car title this year, especially since his victory in Gainesville ended with the car upside down and on fire.

Al is quick as all get-out when he's on and it was a treat to see him take out both Tony Pedregon and John Force in eliminations. Here's hoping his strong finish to the year helps the team secure some funding for the '98 season.

But here's one word to those folks who think Force took a dive at the starting line so Al could pick up the victory and the much-needed prize money -- Bullcookies!!!

If there's one word to describe Force BETTER than quotable it's competitive. Need proof? Just look to last season when he had the title signed, sealed and delivered by something like, oh, Easter. He didn't sit back and let other drivers "taste" victory lane.

Force went out and continued to whoop on the entire Funny Car field. No way, shape or form was John going to give Al that victory in Dallas on Sunday. John wanted that event win to go along with clinching his seventh NHRA Funny Car championship.

Trust the old Sparkster.

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Sparky's spies have been at the recent test runs at the newly revamped Atlanta Motor Speedway, and we don't like the reports we're getting.

Speeds are going to be up significantly in the Winston Cup race at AMS next month, and that's not a good thing. Sparky likes speed as much as the next igniter instrument, but speeds were already so fast at Atlanta that it was difficult to race. The new front dogleg configuration figures to kick a few miles per hour (assuming good weather conditions) into the equation.

Sparky also fears that increased speed at Atlanta will find the dreaded black cloud of restrictor plates hovering over the track. Accidents there can be particularly wicked (ask Steve Grissom), and the new turns one and four may become especially difficult in the new layout. Rumors of restrictor plates have visited Atlanta in years past, and we can imagine NASCAR taking a hard look at the situation with the track's additional speed.

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Speaking of NASCAR, the sanctioning body has locked itself in a very embarrassing situation in relation to one of its key staff positions.

NASCAR's Winston Cup media coordinator is an unknown person to the vast majority of fans, but the person filling the position is a critical link between the Daytona Beach offices and the outside world. The coordinator provides information, answers questions and has the difficult job of explaining the NASCAR rule book (yes, there is one) to members of the media.

The current problem with the Winston Cup media coordinator is that there isn't one. Kevin Triplett, who handled the job professionally and admirably for several years after leaving a public relations job with Dale Earnhardt, was promoted to NASCAR's Competition Department, leaving a big void.

NASCAR moved slowly replacing Triplett, finally hiring Joe Condo, formerly a public relations representative for the Milwaukee Bucks National Basketball Association team. Much to NASCAR's embarrassment, Condo lasted six days in the job. He started -- and more or less ended -- his NASCAR career at the UAW-GM Quality 500 in Charlotte, where he appeared to be shellshocked by the immensity of the situation.

This is a job that requires long hours, much travel and a personality that doesn't wither under pressure that is often intense.

Here's a hint for NASCAR -- you guys may have to pay somebody more than a supermarket bagboy's salary to fill this spot.

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Talladega leftover: Leaving the speedway after the DieHard 500, Sparky spotted a Winnebago with a huge Chevrolet sign reading "If not Dale, then Jeff". It was our second documented sighting of a fan who likes Earnhardt and Gordon, a species apparently as rare as a winning Pontiac.

Email Sparky with your comments - sparky@irace.com

http://www.irace.com/newsview/1997/sparky/NVsparky_102097.htm