Much has been made recently of Chip Ganassi's uncanny perspicacity in picking young drivers, the latest of whom, Jamie McMurray, just won his first Winston Cup race on only his second try.
Not to take anything away from Mr. Ganassi but folks seem to forget the all-time champ at picking winners, one Roger
Penske. Penske plucked Mark Donohue out of Sports Car Club of America amateur racing and made him a champion in Trans Am and the 1972 Indy 500 winner. Rick Mears was an off-road racer until Penske turned him into arguably the best open-wheel oval specialist of all time. "Spin and Win" Indy 500 winner Danny
Sullivan was another of Penske's picks, as were Al Unser Jr. and Helio Castroneves, also Indy winners. And in Winston Cup, young Ryan Newman is doing very nicely in the Penske South Ford stable, thank you.
But however loyal Penske may be to his drivers, he's all business when it comes to other aspects of racing. A founder of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), he nevertheless switched allegiance to the rival Indy Racing League (IRL) last season when long-time sponsor Marlboro suggested that the IRL
would be a better marketing venue. Now, after running Fords in Winston Cup since 1994, he is going with Dodge for the 2003 season. This brings to 11 the roster of full-time Dodge teams in Winston Cup. With Penske's defection the number of Ford teams drops to 11 with 13 for Chevrolet and five for Pontiac.
In typical Penske fashion, "The Captain" explained his decision in
cold-blooded business terms.
"Obviously, it's a business-to-business decision," Penske said. "We've been a dealer under the Chrysler brands for a number of years, and we felt that business-to-business decision could be furthered."
Once again, NASCAR has reacted to tragedy. Following the death of ARCA driver
Eric Martin at Lowe's Motor Speedway last weekend, NASCAR has changed rules on spotters. Martin's car had come to a stop after a spin when Deborah Renshaw came by some 12 seconds later and slammed into it, causing fatal injuries to Martin. Her spotter, positioned atop the team's hauler, was not in a position to direct her around Martin's car. From this weekend on, NASCAR
has mandated that a spotter be in the designated spotter stand (not on the team's hauler) for every track session of Winston Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck events.
Is it a case of "From Hero to Zero"? Young Jamie McMurray, who created a sensation when he won in his second Winston Cup start at Lowe's Motor Speedway last weekend, has already been sent down to the minors. Well, not really. McMurray has contractual obligations to Clarence Brewer's No. 27 Busch team, and is at Memphis for the Busch race this weekend. Craftsman
Truck points leader Mike Bliss will sit in for McMurray in the No. 40 Ganassi Dodge at Martinsville. Hey, wouldn't it be neat if he won? I wonder if there has ever been a case of three drivers winning in the same car in one season in Winston Cup. Trivia buffs, start your research!
Finally, although the local racing season is over, that doesn't mean local drivers haven't been active. Jerry Allec, Jr. was entered in the Craftsman Truck event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend. He ran mid-pack in practice, but the right rear axle broke on the truck on the qualifying warmup
lap. Nevertheless he qualified only two spots from making the race on time (he was a full second slower than in practice). The team had no provisionals and according to Allec it cost it the $23,000 that would have been awarded for merely starting the race. Allec feels that he gained credibility but missed the opportunity to race at a 1.5 mile track, something he has to accomplish before being accredited by NASCAR to run longer tracks like Daytona. He plans to test at Daytona again in January with the team and run only five races next year to maintain his rookie standing for the 2004 season.
Another local hero, Chet "The Jet" Danburg, was scheduled to race Lakeport, Calif., Open Competition show last night. I'll try to find out how he did and let you know next week.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist.