By Bruce Martin
March 16, 2009

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- As sports fans gear up for college basketball's March Madness, NASCAR fans have their own version as the series heads to Bristol for the first short track race of the season.

On that note, don't be surprised if there's some basketball seeping into NASCAR. Take a look at either Jeff Gordon's or Jimmie Johnson's pit area someday and don't be surprised to see Will Perdue towering over the other crew members.

The 7-foot former Vanderbilt standout played a key role with the 1990s Chicago Bulls, winning three championships with Michael Jordan. He won a fourth with the San Antonio Spurs. Now he has a relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, working with Gordon and Johnson as a "playoff advisor."

Purdue grew up in Florida driving go-karts and quarter-midgets until he literally outgrew them. He met Gordon and his crew chief, Robbie Loomis, at Chicagoland Speedway's first race in 2001. With a newly-adopted Chase format in place, Loomis asked Perdue to speak to the team about competing in a playoffs, and what change it would inspire.

"I flew into Charlotte, met the guys, talked to them about the importance of teamwork and how things would change with the scrutiny involved and how they could prepare for it," Perdue said.

Perdue built his relationship from a crew member's point of view, emphasizing that in his mind Gordon plays the role of Michael Jordan and Steve Letarte is Phil Jackson. The same goes with his involvement on the 48 team with Jimmie Johnson as Jordan and Chad Knaus as Jackson. That must be working because Johnson and Knaus accomplished the "Three-peat" last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Perdue speaks from his experience as a role player with the NBA Champion Bulls and he spends time with the crew members to discuss performance issues and handling pressure.

He also works for ESPN, and once the NBA season is over, he shows up at select NASCAR races. Last season Perdue made 10 Sprint Cup events, including the season finale at Homestead.

"If I were in basketball, I'd be considered the director of player personnel," Perdue said. "I'm outside the box and somebody these guys can talk to. It's a weird dynamic how these teams are set up because you have management and you have employees, so I'm almost like a liaison between those guys to Stevie [Letarte] and those guys to Jeff [Gordon]."

Perdue stresses the mental aspects of the sport, emphasizing that teams need to set big goals, shooting not just for the top 12, but for the No. 1 spot. A perfect example of how his philosophy works came last year. When Kyle Busch was burning the wheels off his car, winning eight of the first 26 races, Johnson's team was systematically working its way into The Chase. Once the final 10-race playoff started, Busch was burned out and the momentum quickly shifted to Johnson.

"The issue with Kyle Busch seems to happen every year with a driver," Perdue said. "This is Jimmie's third championship but he wasn't the hottest driver heading into the last 10 races. It's almost like those guys have developed a formula."

Perdue says there are big similarities both on a gameday basis (one NASCAR race and one NBA game), and over the course of the sports' long seasons. Those similarities make his working between the sports easy.

"What happens in the first 46 minutes [of an NBA game] is something you learn that will work in the final two minutes," Perdue said. "It's the same thing in these races where these guys get answers from other teams, like when somebody takes two tires, they might use that later. Much like the NBA, NASCAR is a copycat. If something is successful for them, we're going to try it."

The basketball analogies go even further from Perdue. He has noticed that some of Johnson's competition in NASCAR has the same look in their eyes that he saw from other teams when he was playing with Jordan and the Bulls. It's a look of fear and self-doubt before the contest even begins.

"It wasn't that other teams didn't have an answer, but they knew they had to play their best game just to have a chance at beating the Bulls," Perdue said. "These teams in NASCAR know that just to have a chance, they have to have the best pit stops, tire combinations and everything has to go right."

While it may seem that Perdue's involvement with a NASCAR team is a real "stretch," the 7-footer makes some good points when it comes to competitive theory.

After all, whether it's the NBA or NASCAR, there is still competitive fire in both, and Perdue is helping to bring the mental approach to a different sport.

In addition to a new engine formula beginning with the 2012 season, the IndyCar Series may be utilizing a new fuel other than Ethanol if a new engine manufacturer has its way.

German manufacturers Volkswagen, Porsche and Audi would like the series to use a gasoline/ethanol blend because it is closer to what is used in the European passenger car market. Honda Performance Development, the current IndyCar engine supplier, is open to the switch but wants the fuel issue to be decided before beginning the architecture process of a new turbo-charged engine.

IndyCar Series officials are considering the fuel switch but remain hesitant to bring gasoline into the mix because of safety concerns and the signal that it would send to the American market.

"We're looking at fuels that may be more passenger car relevant in 2012," said Les Mactaggart, the senior technical director for the IndyCar Series. "Right now we are running 100 percent fuel-grade Ethanol. Will that be a relevant fuel in 2012? We're trying to sort out which would be the best direction to go in terms of fuel, as well."

Mactaggart is a key member of the IndyCar Series team that is working with potential engine manufacturers from around the world in the ongoing Engine Roundtable that will create the new engine/chassis formula set to debut in 2012.

IndyCar Series engines have evolved from methanol fuel to a 90-10 percent mix of methanol/ethanol mix in 2006 to a 100 percent fuel grade ethanol that has been used in the series since 2007. Gasoline has not been used in IndyCars since 1964. It was banned after the horrific crash in that year's Indianapolis 500, when drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were burned to death in a fiery inferno after a crash in Turn 4 on the second lap.

Of course, safety features have come a long way in the past 45 years and gasoline is used in Formula One, American Le Mans and NASCAR.

"We have all kinds of things in the pipeline to prevent people from engaging gear when the fueling hose is plugged in -- things we should be doing now as an advancement to make these things safer anyway," Mactaggart said. "Formula One uses gasoline and they refuel on a regular basis. There is always a risk but I think if we go that route we should look at it very carefully, consider the implications and really what is right for the American public and the environment. They are all considerations before we make the final decision.

Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the IndyCar Series, orchestrated a switch in the offseason from corn-based ethanol produced in the United States to sugar-based ethanol made in Brazil after the American ethanol industry fell flat from various issues, including the perception of rising food costs. Angstadt is open to considering a switch in fuel but admits to a degree of hesitance. He said IndyCar officials don't need to look back to 1964 to see the dangers of gasoline, referring instead to last year's ALMS race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, when a fire in Gil de Ferran's pit area badly burned one of his crew members.

NASCAR has always used gasoline to fuel its cars but because of the closed design and placement of the fuel tank away from the engine, pit fires have become a rarity.

A switch to a gasoline blend may send the wrong message to the American consumer. Renewable fuel options are important, but it also shows that in Europe, dependency on fossil fuels remains higher than in the United States. While E-85 is available at pumps in the U.S., it is an unknown commodity in Europe.

TRG Motorsports has made it into the top 35 in the Sprint Cup Series owner points, proving that a team done right can make it work on tight funding.

The team, which is made up of purchased cars and a crew and driver who were unemployed, has risen to the top of the "have not" or "go or go home" teams in the series, currently 34th in owner points.

That's a great accomplishment given that the team was started just 15 days before the Daytona 500. It qualified for and ran the same car in the three races that followed, finishing 33rd in California, 14th in Vegas and 22nd at Atlanta. Most teams have at least 10 cars; TRG has two.

"We took a real flier in January when we decided to run the 500," team owner Kevin Buckler said. "When we didn't make it, we quickly revamped our team and went to California with a renewed spirit to succeed in this sport. We wanted it bad."

Slugger Labbe came on board as crew chief and David Gilliland signed on to drive.

"At Yates we had about 10 cars and a spare for each race," Gilliland said. "It is a different driving style knowing that you don't have all of the resources. I can't take any extra chances, and have to err on the conservative side in every situation."

The scrappy crew includes 10 members, of which five work on the car. It utilizes a rented pit crew on Sundays and has bucked the trend by showing a small, efficient business can finish ahead of established names and teams in the driver and owner points.

Furniture Row Racing has added a 13th race to its 2009 Sprint Cup schedule: the April 5 race at Fort Worth.

The team is dropping the two road races -- at Sonoma, Calif. (June 21) and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (Aug. 9) plus the May 31 race at Dover, Del. Those three races are being replaced with Darlington, S.C. (May 9), Long Pond, Pa. (Pocono -- June 7) and Indianapolis (July 26).

The No. 78 team entered two of the first four Cup races, with driver Regan Smith finishing 21st in the Daytona 500 and 20th in Las Vegas.

"We all sat down and re-evaluated our schedule to see what suits our racing program the best," said Joe Garone, Furniture Row Racing's general manager. "Since we're a sponsor-owned team we have the flexibility to move in and move out of race markets."

To prepare for the Texas race next month, the No. 78 team has scheduled a two-day test session on Wednesday and Thursday of this week at Pikes Peak in Fountain, Colo., which is near the team's Denver base.

Here's a suggestion -- recliners for everyone.

Indy Racing League officials have altered the bonus points awarded during an IndyCar Series race weekend to match Firestone Indy Lights -- two points for leading the most laps and one point for the pole winner, marking the first time since 2000 that points will be awarded based on qualifying. Since 2001, the lap leader received all bonus points.

The pole winner also will receive the $10,000 PEAK Performance Pole Award prize for races other than the 93rd Indianapolis 500 ($100,000).

"The fight for the pole is full of drama on ovals and on road and street courses," said Barnhart. "It seems appropriate that the driver who can survive four laps driving on the edge on ovals, or who can make it through three elimination rounds on road and street courses, be rewarded for their efforts with a point towards the championship."

The point system for each race -- descending from 50 for first place, 40 for second, 35 for third, etc. -- is unchanged.

"I think it's great that you're rewarded for pole position because it is such hard work and so difficult to get a pole in this series," said Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe, who won three poles in 2008." It's sort of the first race of the weekend. To earn a point for it gives you a little more satisfaction."

"This experience is going to be a lot of fun for me. I play myself and I help Earl and his brother Randy get out of a big jam."-- Michael Waltrip on his role as a TV star on an upcoming episode of NBC's "My Name is Earl.

"When I made the move from Formula One to Champ Car in 2007, I had no knowledge of circuits, tires, drivers, engine, whatever of that series, and I had five podiums out of the first six races, so that was a motivation boost. I think my attitude is the same for the IndyCar Series. The team contacted me because they know what I can do, and I'm here to do the best job I can. Of course I have respect for the ovals, there's still a steep learning curve, but nothing to be worried about. The team is very strong, great results. I feel at home already."-- Robert Doornbos of The Netherlands as he prepares for his IndyCar Series rookie season.

After a week off, NASCAR is back in action as it heads to the short tracks for the first time this season. Sunday's 500-lapper at Bristol is a fan favorite because of its fender-banging action. When a wreck happens at the high-banked short track, it looks like a 4-year-old emptying his box of toys on the floor.

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