Jarrett, Earnhardt bond over beers

Well, Dale Jarrett might be retiring to the motorhome lot a little bit early tonight, now that qualifying for the Sprint Cup Series' Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway has been rained out.

But Jarrett, who is making his final career Cup start on Sunday, didn't always like to head home early.

Every once in a while we get a much-needed glimpse at the personality of the people who make the NASCAR machine go. With Jarrett on his way to the television booth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought Friday was the right time to share his favorte Jarrett story.

And the story had nothing to do with Jarrett's 1999 Cup title, or his multiple Daytona 500 victories -- as admirable as all of those accomplishments are. Nope, Earnhardt remembered a party, one that came after he won the Pepsi 400 at the track that claimed his father's life just 5 months prior back in 2001.

"I had won and we were standing down in the motorhome lot, it was 1 or 2 in the morning," Earnhardt recalled. "We had a circle of us all drinking beer, about 20 of us. I looked around and I knew everybody -- it was mostly team members and some friends of mine in town, and I looked to my right and standing next to me was Dale Jarrett.

"I asked him what he was still doing there. 'Why aren't you on your way home?' He said 'I wouldn't miss this. That was the coolest thing I have ever seen you do.' "

Perhaps that is Jarrett's greatest contribution to NASCAR. He gets the proverbial "it" -- he even understands that he himself is a bridge between the past and the present, through both his name and through his abilities.

"He is the kind of guy where you can say, 'Hey man, if this ever happens to me, what do I do?' " Earnhardt said. "He is going to tell you exactly the right way to go about it. He has just been a great friend."

Earnhardt realized that over beers that night in July after his Pepsi 400 victory.

"That was just, I don't know, it showed me a lot about his character right there," Earnhardt said. "At that time in my life, it meant a lot to me for somebody to care and want to experience that with you. Obviously there was a void there for me, and it meant a lot to me that he understood that and that was just a great moment for me."


Well, if this doesn't make you sick...

From the "Don't You Wish You Lived Somewhere Else" file comes this little tidbit from the NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach:

"By the end of the month, (a dozen short tracks will be up and running as) NASCAR’s national program for short tracks gets off to a roaring start."

Yep, that's right, while we sit here in the northeast wondering if we'll see enough snow melt and the grounds dry enough to permit our local tracks to open their gates by, oh, I don't know, July, tracks across the country are already going racing. Greenville-Pickens, which hosts the NASCAR Camping World East Series later this spring, is among 3 southeastern tracks slated to open this weekend.

Kind of makes you long for straight-up time trials, single-file restarts and leader infallibility, doesn't it?

And while we sit up here arguing about whether Super Late Models are truly super or whether any short track promoters around here know anything about promotion, in other parts of the country, they're racing. Instead of arguing about last year, they're arguing about the here and now, about Twin 50-lap Late Model features — and getting into honest-to-goodness fistfights in the pits!

Lucky them!

That being said...

* Don't put too much stock in the whole Goodyear tire outcry following Atlanta. There were no catastrophic tire failures in the Kobalt Tools 500 last Sunday, and that means only 1 thing: The tires did their job.

Racers may not want to hear this, but if a tire won't go as fast as you want through the turns, slow down. That's kind of what racing's long been about -- he who can go fastest in the given elements wins. I know racers have been whining since the first test session prior to the first practice prior to the first race ever held, but it's the safety that's most important.

*Wait -- CART and IRL merged? We misssed this?...

* I changed my mind. I think "Gypsy Biker" is the best track on the Magic CD. (Yep, I still buy CD's. Not out of purism or principle, mind you, but because The Godfather backed out of a promise to toss his old MP3 player my way. What a weasel!)

* Josh Beckett's back has me worried. But I'm not as worried as if I were a Yankees fan. After all, that team has itself so concerned with the Rays (read: base-brawl) that they've forgotten there are bigger fish to fry.

And, BTW, doesn't a spring training fight bring new meaning to the term "bench-clearing?" What were there -- like 150 guys in each dugout for that Yankees-Rays game on Wednesday?

* Just 39 more days until the scheduled ACT/True Value Modified Series opener at Lee USA Speedway.

And 139 more days until the weather actually permits them to race.

10 years in the making for Kevin Lepage

Veteran Portland Press Herald motorsports scribe Steve Solloway once pulled me aside -- OK, it was more than once, but who's counting, anyway? -- and told me the story of Kevin Lepage picking coins out of a motorhome seat cushion, trying to pay for food for he and his wife as he chased a NASCAR opportunity with everything he had back in the day.

Lepage is still chasing as furiously as ever -- and in a world where I rarely root for anyone on the track, I find it hard not to pull for Lepage to find some measure of success in the Nationwide Series this season. It's been almost 10 years since Lepage last won a race of any kind in NASCAR. That's a lot of lefthand turns between wins for the former American-Canadian Tour driver from Shelburne, Vt.

But for all his trying, Lepage is being rewarded this weekend with a chance not many drivers in his position ever get. His last Nationwide Series win came in 1998 at Bristol while driving for car owner Doug Taylor. This weekend, Lepage returns to the site of his, umm, most recent triumph for thet same car owner in Taylor.

Can Lepage win this weekend at Bristol in an unsponsored Ford? No, probably not. But he and Taylor are looking forward to seeing where the team is at in the 4th race of the season.

"As we joined forces once again (in January) we commented to each other that this year’s first race at Bristol would be that much more significant as a milestone of our season’s progression," Taylor said. "This race is very important to our team."

He may have a different perspective now than he once did, but hasn't every race always been important to Lepage? How else to explain digging coins out of seat cushions or taking the time to run the Oxford 250 with a start-up Late Model team in 2007 — while mired in the middle of a stretch where it was virtually impossible to qualify his Cup Series car for racing on Sundays?

No wonder we can pull for a guy like this.


PASS new series not national enough

For the most part, PASS has made all the right moves this off-season.

Responding to criticism that it had stretched too far from its northern New England roots, the PASS North Series centered its 2008 schedule around Wiscasset Raceway and the DNK 250 there this summer. Helping fill the void left in Super Late Model racing down south after NASCAR stepped out, the PASS South Series has stepped up with more races and new venues. Bridging the gap between the North and the South, PASS president Tom Mayberry announced the creation of a PASS National Championship.

But there's just one little problem. It's really not a national championship at all. One person joked with me the other day that it really ought to be called the "PASS Southern National Championship."

In essence, that's what it is.

3 of the 4 races in the mini-series are being held in the south, starting with next Saturday's Easter Bunny 150 at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. The only series race in these parts is the PASS 300 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in late September.

Further aiding southern teams' quest for the championship within a championship is the provision saying that teams need only submit their best 3 finishes toward that national title.

In the end, winning that championship will sound all nicey-nice and look good on an aspiring young racer's would-be NASCAR resume, but it's really not a national championship of any kind at all.

Understand this: there is great, great difficulty in trying to lure southern-based race teams to compete in the north. It's long been accepted that they simply won't race in unfamiliar territory, that they abhor any kind of racing where time trials are meaningless and restarts are double-file. I get that.

Still, an even split of races (2 in the south, 2 in the north) would help to make this more of a true "national" championship, though even then it's not necessarily "national" in every respect. But it would be "national" in terms of PASS' reach. And that, ultimately, is what it's all about.

With the schedule as it's currently constructed, simply making all 4 races mandatory for eligibility would go a long way toward righting the situation. We're not asking teams to drive to 10 or even 6 extra races -- it's just 4 races. And since we're talking about the southern teams here (and tailoring the national championship to encourage their participation), it's not a stretch to make one of the 2 most significant PASS North races on the slate an obligation.

If they want to be "national" champs, after all, they ought to run at least one race out of their comfort zone, no?


Gear jammin': Atlanta

Top 4 stories from Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway:

1st gear -- Toyota's first Cup Series win: This hardly qualifies as a surprise, given the Toyota camp's alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing this season and the way the JGR cars had performed over the first 3 weeks of the season. Still, Kyle Busch's victory at Atlanta did give the Japanese manufacturer its first Sprint Cup Series win and marked the first victory lane appearance by a foreign manufacturer since a Jaguar won in 1954.

2nd gear -- Tony Stewart blasts Goodyear: A Tony Stewart rant hardly qualifies as newsworthy these days, but his pointed shots at Goodyear following the race were especially bitter -- even for a guy with Stewart's reputation. Not only did he call the tires on his No. 20 the worst he'd ever put on a car in his professional career, but he committed a NASCAR cardinal sin by naming names -- Hoosier, Firestone, anyone? -- of other companies not affiliated with the sport. Boy, Stewart may loathe the media, but does he ever make for some great copy...

3rd gear -- Jimmie Johnson's continued struggles: Jimmie Johnson's won the last 2 Cup Series titles, and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate dominated the "COT" races in 2007. So, what gives? Were The Chase to start today (which, obviously, it won't) Johnson would be on the outside looking in. The No. 48 rallied for a top-10 finish at Atlanta, though it looked like it was going to be much, much worse than that for most of the 500-mile event. Had Dale Earnhardt Jr. not set such a blistering pace early -- putting nearly half the field down a lap before the 100-mile mark -- Johnson's results certainly would have been dreadful. It's still very early, but observers of NASCAR racing expect teams like Johnson's to make much quicker turnarounds than the 48 camp has thus far.

4th gear -- Debris cautions raise eyebrows: Taking shots at NASCAR and its television partners has become both warranted and great sport in the last few years. "Phantom debris" cautions, in particular, have become targets of criticism -- as conspiracy theorists love to accuse NASCAR for using these cautions to drum up better competition. Twice in the early going Sunday the race was slowed by cautions for debris -- when Earnhardt and Busch were threatening to stink up the show. Still, it should be pointed out, that NASCAR's top priority is safety -- and erring on the side of "caution" (no pun intended) when the track may be unsafe is always a wise move. No matter how fishy it may look.