Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Musings After Atlanta

Now that we've all woken up following the snooze fest that was the Kobalt Tools 500, let's examine some key NASCAR issues heading into Bristol:

Don't call Hendrick a fool for dumping Busch just yet
While Kyle Busch seems to have made it his personal mission this year to prove Rick Hendrick wrong for pushing him out the door to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr., let's not read anything more into his win on Sunday than is actually there.

Busch won the race, dominated with what was easily the best car aside from Carl Edwards' Fusion (which fell out with engine woes). He gave Toyota its first Sprint Cup win, and the first foreign make to win a Cup race since a Jaguar apparently won a 100-lapper somewhere in New Jersey back in 1954.

But don't think Busch has his revenge yet. He's a hell of a talent, no doubt, but Busch's aggressive style will bite him eventually if he doesn't reign it in a little. Busch drives the wheels off the car every lap, regardless of where he's running or how large a lead he has. Taking the white flag Sunday, Busch came up on Dale Jarrett's slower machine and proceeded to ride his bumper through the corner. At best, it was unnecessary; at worst, it showed Busch still has a long way to go to reach the level of maturity everyone thinks he should have.

And if he doesn't reign in the aggression, he'll fall out of contention for the Cup. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon can be just as aggressive, but they also know when to dial it back, which can be key in winning a championship.

But let's examine Junior. Hendrick signing him hasn't exactly been a mistake; the sport's most popular driver sits sixth in Sprint Cup points, and were it not for a freak accident at Fontana, Junior could be sitting on four top-tens to start the year. He finished 9th at Daytona, and a strong 2nd at Vegas and 3rd at Atlanta -- two intermediate tracks Junior has struggled on in recent years.

Did I expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be the leader at Hendrick so soon? No; it's somewhat jarring that during Saturday's practice in Atlanta, Gordon went to Junior wanting setup notes. But Junior's recent performances will have him in Victory Lane at least once this year, and I doubt Hendrick will be suffering from buyer's remorse, no matter how many times Kyle Busch takes the checkered flag.

Tony might have a point, but ...
Do I disagree with Tony Stewart's criticism of Goodyear's tire last weekend at Atlanta? No; the race was boring, and the tire manufacturer -- the only one NASCAR deals with -- apparently didn't have the most competitive compound. After a tire test over the winter, Goodyear decided to go with a harder compound in the interest of safety.

Which, as we all know, is paramount in this sport.

So in trying to keep the drivers safe, Goodyear made the big names -- Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. specifically -- mad and treated fans to a boring follow-the-leader event. But just how upset was Stewart?

"That was the most pathetic racing tire that I've ever been on in my professional career," Stewart told Fox TV. "Goodyear can't build a tire that is worth a crap. If I were Goodyear, I would be really embarrassed about this weekend and what they brought here. It didn't keep us from winning the race and how we got to second, I don't know."

Well, there you go ... Tony being Tony. Should drivers speak up about the state of Goodyear tires and work with the company to make things better in the future? Absolutely, but Stewart -- known as much for his big mouth as his gut and greasy wanna-mullet -- made it personal, took a legitimate criticism and buried it in a mountain of unabashed whining.

Junior and Gordon were more diplomatic in their criticism, each saying they hoped Goodyear would take the data from Sunday and bring a better tire to Atlanta when the series returns to the 1.5-mile track in October.

Even Stewart's car owner, Joe Gibbs, piled on the two-time Cup champion, telling sports talk radio host Jim Rome on Tuesday he wished Stewart had handled the criticism differently. When Rome asked if Gibbs meant more diplomatically, the Hall of Fame football coach responded, "Behind closed doors."

But that's not Stewart's style, which in a way is fine. The sport needs a credible voice in the garage area with the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. seven years ago, and many feel Stewart is a perfect candidate. A driver with the championship pedigree who isn't afraid to speak his mind -- which is fine, but I doubt Earnhardt Sr. would've taken the criticism to this level.

Keselowski still fuming after Vegas wreck
Nationwide Series (boy, is it tempting to just type Busch Series) driver Brad Keselowski hasn't quite learned how to let things go.

The young JR Motorsports driver -- who calls Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. bosses -- had a shot at his first Nationwide Series win two weekends ago in Las Vegas, but wrecked after teammate Mark Martin inadvertently hit Carl Edwards on the frontstretch. Edwards spun out, sending Keselowski into the wall in the process.

Martin went on to win the race -- giving Junior his first win as a car owner -- and immediately apologized to Edwards and Keselowski in Victory Lane.

But according to, the apology wasn't enough. Martin apparently called Keselowski after the Vegas race and left a voicemail, one Keselowski admitted in Atlanta he hadn't yet returned.

"What could be said?" Keselowski said. "It's not something you could fix with words. It's just not something you could fix with words."

Keselowski is a fine talent; one of the few Nationwide-only drivers who has a legitimate shot at victory every week. But he needs to learn when to let things go, especially as far as teammates are concerned. And he should know Martin is the last guy who would dump a driver on purpose -- a fact not lost on Edwards, the driver Martin actually made contact with.

So if Edwards can get over the wreck, why can't Keselowski?

I'll grant that Keselowski is young -- just 24 -- so he has time still to grow and mature. But at least talking to Martin could've handled whatever ill feelings he still had. And I know the kid felt horrible after watching his first real shot at a win go away like that, but as talented as Keselowski is, there will be many other opportunities.

He just has to keep his head on right.

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