A new year…

As 2016 unfolds there will be some changes in store for this blog.

It will still focus on motorsports, but I will expand my thoughts beyond NASCAR to include other forms of racing, mostly the four wheel kind. I’ll also toss in a few thoughts about other topics, as well – especially the motorsports media and life and people in general. I don’t know everything about everything, but I know why I am here.

There have been many reasons why my postings on this blog have been so scarce in the past year – unfortunately I still I cannot discuss why. But those restrictions will soon be removed and I shall find myself back where I can say what is on my mind. I think that’s how you like it.

Thanks again for visiting Sledgehammer! I pledge to keep you engaged and entertained as we move forward.

Homestead Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Ford Ecoboost 400, the season finale for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:

  • Although each of the Gang of Four in the season finale had his own unique and appealing story, Busch’s as the “comeback kid” was not the most attractive according to the media I talked to. Most were looking to a miracle win by Jeff Gordon. Least attractive? A repeat by Kevin Harvick.
  • But as we’ve seen happen so often this season, Harvick played the bridesmaid once again. Second is the first loser, right?
  • It will be hard not to compare Jeff Gordon’s final season with Tony Stewart’s upcoming finale in 2016. One big difference between the two champions is that Gordon has remained competitive until the end. Stewart hasn’t been a threat to win for several seasons. I hope that changes.
  • OK, so Kyle Busch has won the championship, but I’m still thinking about how Joe Gibbs Racing went from having four cars in the Chase (and being the outright favorite to win the title) to having just one in the finale.
  • As Sprint Cup races go, the season finale was another of the many ho-hum affairs NASCAR fans have been forced to endure this year. Restarts provided the only excitement all evening and even they were in short supply. I think everyone is happy to see that this current competition package on the Cup cars has run its final race.
  • We’ve been talking about a Kyle Busch championship for years. But every year Busch always fell flat during the Chase. This time around, one thing was different. He really wanted (read: needed) it. After spending time in a hospital bed, thinking about how the whole dream might be over, changed him. Trust me, after spending a good deal of time in a hospital bed myself, your life changes.
  • It would be a mistake to overlook the 18 team’s flawless final pit stop with ten laps to go that secured Busch’s win and the title. During my travel throughout the year I often will meet someone for the first time and I tell them I work in NASCAR. In explaining why they too should be a fan, I always insist that among everything else, it is important that they understand that it is a team sport.
  • How about a championship race where only the final four (or maybe six) teams race each other in a 100 lap shoot out, perhaps split into four separate segments? Sounds crazy, right? But so did group qualifying when I wrote about it ten years ago. Back then I was met with “Are you out of your mind, Margolis?”
  • The departure of Brett Jewkes as the head of NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications group is a welcome change by this writer. Under Jewkes direction, the dynamic of how NASCAR was being covered by the media changed dramatically — and not in a good way. Under Jewkes’ reign, the sport experienced a homogenization and pasteurization of coverage. Like taking a glass of fresh organic milk and turning it into a McDonald’s milkshake. Sweet, somewhat appealing, but you hope there are still some remnants of “real” ingredients involved.
  • I shudder to think of who will be Jewkes’ replacement. I know of a few good candidates, but I seriously doubt any of them will get the gig.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time in and around the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in that series, you need to. There was a tremendous amount of young talent in the pipeline to the senior series this season (Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Roddick, Daniel Hemric and others). The races are short (most are under two hours), the competitors see NASCAR as a full contact sport and the passion for winning is genuine.
  • Speaking of Jones, he may be the best young pure talent to come into the sport since Kyle Busch. I know he’s already in the Joe Gibbs Racing pipeline, but I can’t help but think that when the bidding war for his talents begins, Rick Hendrick will be there as the highest bidder.
  • After spending billions of dollars in its NASCAR program, (yes, that’s with a “b”) Toyota finally gets a Cup title. Money well spent? The manufacturer spent the same kind of money, over an eight year period in Formula One, and never won a single race. There were five runner-up finishes, however.
  • Has the Xfinity Series lost its appeal for most NASCAR fans? I wonder how many can tell you who the top three drivers in points were at the end of the season. The series suffers from the Goldilocks syndrome — something just isn’t right. The current competition package makes for lackluster racing.
  • Now that Kyle Larson’s sophomore slump is officially over, I’m looking forward to the Ganassi Racing driver putting this season behind him and taking command of his future by winning races and being a contender in the 2016 Chase.
  • Will this season’s disappointment produce a hangover in 2016 for the 22 team? Is Joey Logano the kind of leader that can rally a squad back to the top?
  • Could we see Michelin make an appearance in NASCAR in the near future? I think so.
  • You can bet the farm that next year’s Ford Championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have a Ford team (or two) among the final four. I wouldn’t exactly call it embarrassment on the faces of Ford execs this past weekend, but there were a lot of forced smiles. Ford’s failure to have a team in the final four has made for a difficult start to Dave Pericak’s tenure as head of Ford Performance.
  • Meanwhile, Chevrolet execs are still scratching their collective heads and wondering how two of their top teams (Hendrick and Stewart-Haas) couldn’t beat one Toyota. I don’t think they were all that excited about Furniture Row winning since that team will be a Toyota team in 2016.
  • Speaking of execs, look for changes in NASCAR’s competition department executive suite in the near future.
  • Things I’ll miss next season: GoDaddy’s prominent sponsorship that helped keep Danica Patrick’s career afloat; and Budweiser, which has sponsored a car in NASCAR since 1983. The change from Budweiser to the Busch brand on the 4 car is not smart marketing. This is what happens when you’re company is no longer American owned and being run by the bean counters.

Phoenix Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway:

  • It took a dedicated NASCAR fan to stay awake for the rain-shortened penultimate event of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. I feel asleep about 75 laps in. Woke up at lap 122. Long rain delays are miserable if you’re at home — stuck with watching hours of NASCAR talking heads going over the same stories several times. Its far worse if you’re at the track.
  • Just to change things up, NBC should have taken their cameras into the media center to hear a different angle on the sport, from those who work in the media trenches — the beat reporters. They have the closest connection to the fans — via social media — not the television network’s talking heads.
  • Last week I wrote that the outcome of the race at Phoenix would have little impact on the top four teams in points that will duke it out at Homestead. That’s exactly how things played out. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
  • Who will win the championship? Any one of the four drivers: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr would make a great champion to represent the sport. Each one can put two sentences together in a meaningful way, each represents a long-standing and dedicated sponsor and each driver has a special story.
  • Gordon is in his final season and his win at Martinsville was like magic. Some fans will always insist that some higher power in Daytona Beach scripts the story for the sport and Gordon winning his fifth title in his final year as a driver is just the kind of storybook ending NASCAR needs at this juncture.
  • Harvick has been the driver to beat all season and his is easily the best of the four teams. A repeat win by the Stewart-Haas driver would be beneficial mainly to those who are in the sport. It would serve as another reminder of how hard work, combined with team wide talent and chemistry is what makes champions in auto racing, not big money or a talented driver alone.
  • Busch’s season is easily the most remarkable. Sitting out for nearly a dozen races due to injury and then returning to destroy the competition with a mid-summer winning streak is truly a story for the ages. Being a father has changed the younger of the Busch brothers and it’s easy to see that the devastating injuries Kyle suffered at Daytona was a wake up call about racing and the meaning of life.
  • Truex Jr.’s team is a lone wolf organization that chose to build its cars a thousand miles away from the competition, making the acquisition of the talent necessary to win all that more difficult. Somehow, team owner Barney Visser has done it. To be honest, moving to Colorado is really a no-brainer. This single-car team is clearly the underdog of the Gang of Four and while winning the title would make a good story, it wouldn’t have the lasting power of a Gordon or Busch win.
  • NASCAR championships are not decided by who would make the best story. If that was the case, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won six titles and not Jimmie Johnson. This year the title will be won by the team that has shown consistency all year long.
  • I’m thinking that means it’ll be the 4 car. Unless they screw it up.
  • By the way, the race is in Homestead and NOT Miami. I don’t have anything against Miami. I grew up there and graduated high school there. I love Miami. I love the city, the people, the food and the weather. But, the track is in Homestead, just like Auto Club Speedway is in Fontana and NOT Los Angeles.
  • I wonder how Ford executives feel about hosting the season finale, known as the Ford Championship Weekend, yet there are no Ford teams in the Gang of Four? They have to feel like the only one at the dance without a date.
  • The Air Titans (I love that name) were once more called into action at Phoenix. I would prefer not to see them on the track until sometime next June or July.
  • I’ve not written anything about Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the rain-shortened race at Phoenix. It just seems meaningless after a marathon day that disappointed everyone but the winning team and the four going to Homestead for the title.
  • I never like to prognosticate, but I do think that if the race continued after a brief rain delay, Joey Logano would be in the Gang of Four.
  • See you in south Florida. Let’s get together for a Cuban coffee and a pastelito de guava.

I read the news today, Oh boy, Jeff Gordon!

Hello my friends.

I have found it difficult to write here for the past year. I’ve gone through some extreme changes in my life, both personally and professionally and unfortunately most of them have been unpleasant. As a result, it’s left me with little desire to write about anything, much less NASCAR, for which most of you come here to read about. And since I’m not being paid anymore for my opinions and words, my former employer Bleacher Report having found my work not to their needing or liking and so they cut me loose, I am left with this blog, for which I am grateful for and even more important, for your support by coming here.

On the occasion of the announcement yesterday that the legendary driver Jeff Gordon is planning to end his NASCAR career at the end of the 2015 season, I felt compelled to write about the two people associated with Gordon who have meant the most to me.

First up, however, I must say a few words about Thursday’s media teleconference with Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick. From a technical standpoint, it was poorly designed and executed. The setting was bleak. There were numerous technical difficulties at the start of the teleconference that made it difficult for questions to be asked. And the volume on Hendrick’s microphone was so high that I could hear every breath, groan and clearing of the throat he made while Gordon was talking. When Hendrick was finally asked a question, his microphone was so high, it nearly blew out my computer speakers.

And while I admit that it was an emotional day for both men, their mood appeared overly somber and serious, they exuded an uncomfortable feeling that made them appear to have been forced into doing the teleconference. There were rare smiles from either man and both appeared less than enthusiastic about their surroundings. Guys, this was a time to celebrate Gordon’s unbelievable career, not look like you were both on Xanax!


There have been tributes aplenty in the past day or so, all of them praising Gordon as a game changer for NASCAR (he was), a role model for drivers (he is) and much, much more. I’ll not add to those platitudes here. I prefer to watch the man in his final year behind the wheel of a Cup car, making magic in his Chevy race car and once again reaching for that highly prized trophy called the Sprint Cup. In NASCAR, it’s tough to be at the top two years in a row these days. Even the dynamic duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson know that. Gordon and his teammates had a slow start to the 2014 season and peaked at the right time. Had it not been for the race at Texas and Brad Keselowski’s questionable bump pass, NASCAR would have crowned Gordon the champion and not my pre-season pick, Kevin Harvick.


Which brings me to Alan Gustafson. Gordon’s crew chief since 2011, Alan has been my friend for much longer. He and I met during his first season as Kyle Busch’s crew chief on the 5 car. He gave Busch a great car every race and the young and brash Busch took full advantage of it, winning races, but just as important, scoring many, many top fives and top 10s. Gustafson taught me a lot about a Sprint Cup car back then. He was the person who took the time to explain how everything worked.

Gustafson became my “go-to” guy for many of my questions. I could always count on an easy to understand answer to any technical question I had. And I also learned over the years about leadership, the Gustafson way. The kind of leadership that kept the 24 team together. At the beginning of the 2014 season, their bad luck had them disappointed, frustrated and questioning themselves. Gustafson knew what to say to them and how to say it. He is truly a leader of men. And he is to be applauded for resurrecting Jeff Gordon’s championship style.

On occasion, Al and I would also talk about each other and our families and life in general. His southern accent is, well, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a NASCAR crew chief. Most of today’s Cup crew chiefs come from the Northeast or Midwest. Not that that’s bad or anything. But NASCAR would do well to keep its southern roots strong and healthy in order to keep the sport moving forward in the 21st century. Which is, another blog for another day.

I have no doubt in my mind that Alan will be able to duplicate the success that 24 team saw last season in 2015. If Gordon remains healthy, he is my pre-season pick for the championship.


Jon Edwards. Most people know his face, but they’re not exactly sure who he is and what he does. His official title is somewhere in the vicinity of publicist. But in reality, he’s one of Gordon’s closest confidantes. They’ve worked together almost since Gordon’s entry into NASCAR. If you’re a member of the media, Edwards is your go-to guy for anything regarding Gordon and an invaluable ally when you needed to connect with the driver of the 24 car.

It was a rare occasion that Edwards would say no to a request. He often will go above and beyond to get the job done, presenting an extremely professional face to the world for anything relating to Jeff Gordon. I am proud to say is also my friend, someone whose first question when seeing me is always “How are you feeling?” And then our conversation turns to Formula One racing or something other than NASCAR. I met Jon when I first came to work in NASCAR. He is always there to answer any question, whether my role was as a journalist, publicist or television producer. Yes, television producer. I had approached Gordon’s father with an idea for a television show for Gordon several years ago. I believed it was perfect for him and I spent quite a bit of time putting it all together. It never did see the light of day. There were issues with logistics and many other reasons. I still believe it is the ideal vehicle for Gordon to segue into once he puts his driving gloves away.

Once you know Jon and how he works, it’s easy to see why he won the 2014 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports PR, a most prestigious honor!

And he’s just a good guy, too.


I don’t profess to know Jeff Gordon the way some journalists do. He was already an established star in the sport when I first began to cover it some 15 years ago and for whatever reason, my relationship with him just remained professional. But, I have always and will continue to admire both his talent and his person. He has done it all, from winning championships and the sport’s biggest races (more than once) to hosting “Saturday Night Live.” I mean, it is very easy to blast out a thousand words of praise and affection for the man. But, I’ll leave that to those who feel they know him better than I.

I prefer to watch Gordon do his thing, alongside the two men in his life who I consider to be among the most important to him. And that I can proudly call my friends.

Thanks Jeff for all those great years of racing. I look forward to your final season.

And thanks Alan and Jon for your friendship. Knowing both of you the way I do makes it easy to see why Jeff Gordon is so successful. He’s got both of you working with him.


Thanks for stopping by. And I promise to write more. Really!

I remember my friend Denny Darnell

It’s been some time since I’ve published anything in this space. I refrained from writing here in deference to my friends over at Bleacher Report, for whom I’ve been writing a regular NASCAR beat over the past year. But, that ends this week and I shall turn my attention back here.

Like many of my friends in the media and throughout the NASCAR and racing community in general, I was deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Denny Darnell. When he announced his retirement earlier this year, we exchanged emails and wished each other well. He was such a good guy. When I was battling cancer, his notes were always like a whiff of hot rubber from a race car that had just come off the track. They were a quick snapshot from someone I knew had written it to me from the front lines of the racing business while I lay in a hospital bed with a chemo bag attached to my arm.

Although I only knew Denny for a comparatively short time, we were good friends. We were not such good friends when we first met. And the story of how our friendship began is one that I always have loved to tell.

It started when he threw me out of the media center at the U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious drag racing event of the year.

Back in 1997, I was writing for one of the earliest motorsports news sites on the Internet, GoRacing.com. I was not only the main writer, I was the editor-in-chief and I took photographs, as well. We had a small staff of writers that covered the main motorsports here in North America, but I took a special interest in both Indy Cars and NHRA drag racing. It was in my attempt to cover drag racing that I met Denny.

Darnell ran the communications effort for the NHRA back then. I wasn’t sure what his affiliation was with the organization—whether he worked for the NHRA or R. J. Reynolds, the company that made Winston cigarettes, the title sponsor of what was then the NHRA Winston Drag Racing series.

Denny was very good at what he did and under his reins, the NHRA received a good deal of media coverage. But, then like today, it was mainly local newspapers (USA Today was just beginning to gain an audience) and local television and some specialized national television coverage.

I was able to get a credential for NHRA events as an Internet journalist only because the company that owned GoRacing.com that I worked for, also did the website for the NHRA. As an Internet pioneer, it was a strange time with limited phone lines available to me for use to file my work. I worked closely with Compuserve motorsports editor, the late Mike Hollander, who like me was an Internet pioneer and who helped me considerably.

Having a media credential at the prestigious U.S. Nationals didn’t mean I had a seat in the media center. Darnell had made sure that the limited space in the tower at the starting line that housed the media center was delegated to the newspaper reporters that had come to cover the event. Any left over seats were then assigned to the public relations person from selected drag racing teams. It made for an interesting mix of media and pr that was strangely incestuous.

My seat? It was in the room next to the deadline media area, alongside where the media was being fed. I didn’t complain. It was a seat and I had access to a phone line that was pretty good and my Internet speed was fast.

My view of the track however, was quite poor and while I could hear the cars, I couldn’t see the starting line and by the time my line of vision was able to see them, they were near the finish line. I guess that was OK, but I had hoped for something better.

I would often wander into the deadline room to get a much better viewing experience. From there, you could not only see the staging lanes where the cars were being pushed up to the starting line, but you had a view of the entire track. It was first class media room access whilst I had economy class. Darnell would let me walk freely around the media center, but he always kept a close eye on me. He had probably been thinking that this guy is making this Internet stuff up and he’s just angling for a free ticket to the event. He was partially right there, as I did enjoy the perks of journalism like the free tickets and free food..

On the day before the final elimination rounds, I had been hanging out with the writers from the Indianapolis Star and USA Today. They had the best seats in the media center, on the front row. The writer for USA Today was another old friend, Erik Arneson, who is now the VP of Media Relations for Fox Sports 1 in Charlotte and he’s written some very good books on drag racers John Force and Darrelll Gwynn as well as a wonderful bio of the legendary Mickey Thompson.

I was never trained as a journalist, but I can offer that I learned from working alongside some of the best in the business!

One of the writers from the Indy Star suggested that since the seat where I was sitting had been assigned to one of their writers who would definitely not be attending the final eliminations rounds, that I should move my computer to that seat and work from there on the day of the final eliminations.

The writer whose seat I would be using? Robin Miller, who now writes for RACER and appears on NBCSN’s Indy Car coverage.  At that time he was a motorsports writer for the Indy Star, primarily covering Indy Cars. I guess he would show up at the U.S. Nationals once and a while.

So, on the day of the final eliminations, I showed up bright and early before anyone else and parked my stuff on the seat in the front row. It was spectacular. I would get to experience the biggest NHRA event of the year from the first class seats. It was bound to make my writing better. Hell, at that time, even the smallest things made my writing better.

As the room filled up with journalists for the big day of the finals, there I sat with the big kids for a chance to work alongside some real professionals.

Before the first pair of Top Fuel dragsters even got to the staging lanes, a very loud voice that could be heard over the rather loud din of the media room caught my attention.

“Margolis, what are you doing?” it said. it was Darnell. I turned to answer but before I could, “Get up from that seat and sit back where you are supposed to sit,” Darnell boomed out.

“But, I was told that I could sit here today,” I replied.

“By who? Not by me. Get your stuff and get back where you belong,” Darnell continued.

He wasn’t being very nice about it. And here I was, sitting amongst the big kids and Darnell was exposing me for who I was, just a lowly Internet journalist who was sneaking around, pretending to be a professional.

I walked over and tried to explain the situation, that Miller wouldn’t be there and that one of the Indy Star writers offered the seat to me. Darnell told me that the seat wasn’t the Indy Star writer’s to give up and that he, Denny Darnell, was in charge of everything in the room and if he wanted to give that seat to someone to use, it would be his choice to make.

“And you’re not going to get that seat,” Darnell said in a large voice. “Either get back to where you’re supposed to sit or get your stuff and get out.”

He was making clear to everyone there that this was indeed his media center and that he was in charge.

I went back to my now illegal seat in the front row and packed up my stuff.

As the then, editor-in-chief of GoRacing.com, I made the executive decision that my website was not going to give any more time or space to any motorsports organization that had a jerk like Darnell in their employ. And then to the dismay of the public relations representatives, who were losing a journalist who had offered them all the online space they wanted (back then, Internet sites weren’t made to look like today’s exercises in pop journalism) for their drivers and more importantly their sponsors, I walked out of the media center.

I think I heard a few claps from a journalist or three who actually supported my stance against the tyranny that Darnell used to run his media center.

Now, I’m not writing any of this to tarnish his reputation or to be negative in any way. I will admit, it was a difficult moment for both of us, as Darnell would later tell me. But, he ruled things with an iron fist and to his credit, the NHRA got more than its fair share of the media spotlight back then. Maybe even more than it does today.

Two years later, I ran into Darnell at the Daytona 500. It was a bit awkward at first, but by that time, he’d left the NHRA and was working in NASCAR. Things were different. I was now working on a nationally televised motorsports television show, Motorsports Weekly, as a producer and on-air talent. Darnell and I took a long walk through the infield of the Speedway that afternoon and we talked about a lot of things, none of them racing.

I had long since left the anger of being embarrassed and humiliated by him in my rearview mirror. And he was very different and very apologetic. He admitted that he felt that I was just trying to get into the race for free and that I had no intentions of writing anything, much less have anyone read it.

But by 2000, the Internet had exploded and it was the new medium and he acknowledged that I was indeed one of the pioneers of the medium and that I had deserved a lot more respect. And he apologized, of course.

It was the start of a long and enjoyable friendship with the man. We always joked about the U.S. Nationals episode. Over the years, he was also a trusted source for real news and information. His birthday was the day before mine and it always gave me the opportunity to remind him that indeed he was still seven years older than me.

It is a terrible sadness to think that he had to leave this life at such a young age. The world has lost one of the truly great southern gentlemen in Denny’s passing.

I am a better person having known and befriended him.