Tough Year for Penske on All Fronts
(Sept. 8, 1997) -- Sparky admits that it's a little early (we're just naturally fast), but his vote for Worst Performing Team of the Winston Cup season probably willgo to Penske Racing South and driver Rusty Wallace.
There simply is no rational way to explain why this team has had such a rotten year. There's a first-class, determined driver in Rusty Wallace. Roger Penske, the principal owner, has enough money to buy several South American countries. Don Miller has a history of running smooth, productive operations. Robin Pemberton is a proven crew chief. And this has been a Ford sort of season.
The Penske shop is so sophisticated and technologically advanced it could run several NASA launches.
Sparky doesn't have the answer. (We know that disappoints our millions of fans, but Sparky doesn't know absolutely everything. We never understood the Monroe Doctrine in high school, either.)
One thing we do know is that people with much more than authority than Sparky are concerned about it. Wallace did some garage-area sniffing around earlier this year, investigating other top-of-the-line opportunities. And Miller has denied that he is considering changing his role with the team.
Wallace and Miller may be staying, but we expect the complexion of this team to be quite different by Daytona 1998.
* We would be remiss, at this point, if we didn't bring up the matter of the other Penske Racing outfit, the CART team of drivers Paul Tracy and Al Unser Jr. Tracy had three wins in a row earlier in the year, but has absolutely fallen into the toilet (figuratively speaking, of course) since then. And Junior's woes just go on and on. And on. He's even worse than Rusty.
We started to say that at least things are better on the speedways side of Penske Motorsports, but come to think of it, California Speedway did not get a second Winston Cup race for '98, and Bruton Smith continues to try to make legal trouble for Penske at Rockingham.
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Speaking of the Winston Cup schedule for next season, now that it has been spread before us, Sparky stands amazed that not only California, but also Bruton's Texas Motor Speedway, did not get second dates but Japan, of all places, did.
This makes about as much sense as scheduling a beach party in far north Alaska in January.
Sparky is forced to conclude that some very serious money -- as in enough to retire our credit card debt -- is changing hands between certain interests in Japan and the powers-that-be in Daytona Beach.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. Money talks. But precious days are being wasted across the water while we keep hearing complaints about not enough available weekends for racing in the U.S. of A.
Texas II, California II and probably a race at Homestead, Fla., should be on the 1998 schedule. The demand is there. And the big purses are waiting.
Sparky would not be surprised if Bruton, who must be seething, schedules some sort of all-comers race to compete with next year's Japanese dates. We're for it. We'd like to see the response.
One Winston Cup driver (who shall remain anonymous, for obvious reasons) was asked point-blank what he would do should Bruton offer big bucks for an "outlaw" race at Texas.
"Well, I'd have to think long and hard about it," he said after a long pause. "I'd have to think about whether I wanted to ever win another one over here (in NASCAR)."
It could get even uglier than that. We think it may very well get back to the way it was in the old days, when NASCAR used an iron fist to keep its drivers out of "outlaw" events, threatening them with suspensions if they competed in unsanctioned races. Why, everybody knows that one of Winston Cup's all-time winningest drivers won as many races (or more) under the pseudonym of "Dub Phillips" than he ever did using his real name and NASCAR driver's license number.
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Sparky's vote for Driver of the Year so far? A tie between Jeff Gordon and Tommy Kendall. But we think the driver who may have done the most to make racing fun to watch in 1997 has been CART champion Alex Zanardi.
Lots of fans -- especially fans of Bryan Herta -- may fume when they read that. But the fact is, Alex is one entertaining race car driver. During the race, there are his daring -- OK, sometimes reckless -- moves. After the race, there are those smokin' doughnuts -- or, as was the case at Laguna Seca Sunday, the accidental wheel-bumping with his teammate, race winner Jimmy Vasser, that resulted in Vasser spinning out and having to catch a ride to victory lane. Before, after and between races, there is the candid commentary that is always likely to come tumbling out of the little Italian's usually-smiling mouth. And come on, even Tony Stewart can understand Alex, if he tries just a little bit.
* Sparky has gained a lot of admiration for Dale Earnhardt over the past two weeks. He isn't racing any better (as Richmond showed), but anyone who can put up with all that probing, scanning and analyzing by doctors and medical technicians has our respect.
We see no great problem with allowing him to race again. People with many more (and more serious) questions about their well-being have participated in NASCAR events.
Where Earnhardt goes from here is another matter. He obviously is not going to claim his eighth championship this year, and his winless streak has become embarrassingly long. Although there is no question he can still win in the right circumstances, there also is no question that he no longer will be the dominant Dale we've seen in the past.
On the plus side, Earnhardt's building of a team of his own appears to be moving along at Star Trek speed. His surprising choice of Steve Park to drive his Busch Grand National cars this year was splendid, as Park has stunned virtually everyone by becoming a force to be reckoned with quickly. Bright, articulate and daring, Park could make noise in his first full Winston Cup season next year.
* On the rising star front, let's send a pat on the back to Kenny Irwin Jr. for his outstanding showing at Richmond Saturday night.
Qualifying on the outside of the front row, running competitively practically the whole race, finishing in the top 10 -- that's a pretty decent start to a Winston Cup career.
We were thinking that Park, in Earnhardt's Pennzoil-sponsored No. 14 next year, was going to have a big edge on Irwin when they clash for rookie-of-the-year honors next season. We still think Park has a much more solid foundation in stock cars. But Irwin showed some awesome talent at Richmond.
* Look for Jeff Gordon's name to spread far, far beyond the boundaries of auto racing next year. Sparky's spies say Gordon's marketing people have big plans beyond soft drinks and motor oil. Gordon's value bounced into another level with the Winston Million win.
Soon, he will be everywhere. Not just in first place.
-- Chris Poterala - email@example.com Community Developer/Computer Guy