Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Thursday, April 24, 2008

New Car Smell?

There's a huge story rocking the NASCAR world right now, and it has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Media reports abound Wednesday that Tony Stewart was in discussions with Joe Gibbs Racing officials about opting out of the final year of his contract. Stewart's deal driving the No. 20 Toyota runs out at the end of the 2009 season.

Talk about coming out of nowhere ... I didn't realize Stewart's contract was running out at the conclusion of next season, and it floors me that he would consider leaving JGR. Thirty-two career wins and two Cup titles ... and it's obvious the team hasn't lost a step since switching from Chevrolet to Toyota.

So why move?

Anonymous sources told's Marty Smith Stewart is interested in owning a team, and could be in discussions to form a partnership with HAAS/CNC Racing, which currently fields the Nos. 66 and 70 Chevrolets in the Sprint Cup Series. The organization does receive equipment and support from Hendrick Motorsports, but the teams' struggles -- Scott Riggs' No. 66 sits 28th in points and Jeremy Mayfield was let go from the No. 70 before the Phoenix race -- make a move to own and drive for HAAS/CNC a questionable one for someone who's literally been a contender from day one.

An organization that associates itself with Mayfield isn't exactly a beacon of stability.

But there is something to be said, I suppose, for the fact that Stewart is winless so far this season. While that's not surprising -- Stewart normally finds his groove once summer comes around and the temperatures rise -- his JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and new guy Kyle Busch have already found Victory Lane.

Busch has consistently outran Stewart so far this season, and considering I already thought the combination of Stewart and Busch could blow up in everyone's face at some point, I can't help but wonder if rather than lash out at Busch, Stewart suddenly just decided to cut his JGR ties and move on.

But here's a move that makes sense to me, one nobody has said word one about:

Richard Childress is adding a fourth car to its Cup garage next season, and he already has a sponsor lined up in General Mills. While I believe Home Depot will go wherever Stewart goes, I can't help but wonder if driving for a guy who won six Cup titles with the late Dale Earnhardt wouldn't appeal to Stewart.

Smith's sources at ESPN also say returning to Chevrolet is a priority for Stewart, and Childress fields Chevrolets. So does Rick Hendrick, and some fantasy racing geeks will salivate at the potential line-up of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart. But I don't realizstically see it happening.

Former New York Yankees guru George Steinbrenner thinks that lineup's a tad ridiculous.

I don't see Dale Earnhardt, Inc. becoming a player, either; Stewart and Junior are good friends, and I have a feeling Stewart is aware of the tense circumstances under which Junior left his late father's company.

So removing Hendrick, DEI and HAAS-CNC, RCR is the only team that makes much sense. I'm not exactly thrilled with someone so successful leaving the team with which he had that success, but if Stewart really wants out, then I think something's going on at JGR to which none of us are privy.

Things are about to get very interesting, that much is certain.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Word of Warning

It was only a matter of time, so seeing the Baltimore Sun wondering whether or not Danica Patrick would make the eventual jump to NASCAR isn't surprising.

But that doesn't make the move a good idea.

Patrick struck gold this past Saturday, picking up her first career IndyCar Series win at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. The win not only got the proverbial monkey off Patrick's shoulders, but it marked another bright spot for an already optimistic open-wheel season.

On the surface, Patrick moving to NASCAR looks like a smart move; her popularity can only help the Sprint Cup Series, and the money that would be available to her would be unmatched in the United States. And whereas her current sports sees the bright lights every Memorial Day weekend for the Indianapolis 500, that spotlight would be on her every weekend from Ferbuary until November in NASCAR.

But upon deeper examination, such a move might not be in her best interest. It sure wouldn't be in the IRL's best interest, seeing as how such open-wheel stars as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Stewart have defected to stock cars over the years. If the IRL hopes to bring more fans to the track and in front of the TV, it can't afford to have its biggest and most talented stars defecting to NASCAR. And Patrick certainly qualifies as one of the series' biggest stars.

And while Stewart has found success in NASCAR, Franchitti and Hornish have -- to put it politely -- struggled. And as talented as Patrick is, she would likely struggle just as mightily in NASCAR, at least initially. And don't look for the media or fans to be all that forgiving if she were to do so.

That's not to say a move to stock cars in the future would be a bad move. But right now, Patrick finds herself running competitively in a revitalized series for one of the best teams in Andretti-Green Racing. She had three podium finishes last year, and on top of her win in Japan, Patrick has finished no worse than 10th so far this year. She's slowly coming into her own, and Patrick would be best-served to stay put for a while.

I think she realizes that and is happy to be in the IRL. And the IRL has to be happy to have her.

Monday, April 21, 2008

NASCAR's Off-Week = Change of Pace

Step in the Right Direction

It’s been a pretty good year so far for the IndyCar Series. First, the season starts with the IRL announcing a reunification deal with Champ Car (formerly CART). The heavily-publicized split in 1995 led to open-wheel racing’s decline in America, which coincided with NASCAR’s meteoric rise in popularity over the past decade-plus.

So putting the two open-wheel leagues back together was a necessity if the sport was ever to be taken seriously on the national sports landscape again.

Then, this past weekend, media darling Danica Patrick picked up her first career win, taking the IRL race at Twin Motegi Japan. She became the first female winner in major American motorsports history (not counting drag racing here), and considering she was already the IRL’s most popular driver, the win can only be a good thing for the series.

Will open-wheel racing surpass NASCAR in terms of national popularity? Highly doubtful, but the unification and Patrick’s success – if continued – can only serve to help the sport.

For the longest time, CART had the big-name open-wheel drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya, Patrick Carpantier, Jacques Villeneuve, Jimmy Vasser, Paul Tracy … they were all CART guys, which made the IRL having the Indianapolis 500 somewhat irrelevant for a while. And even when the big names did return to Indy, NASCAR and its Memorial Day classic, the Coca-Cola 600, had already surpassed it.

For the last decade, the Coca-Cola 600 consistently drew better ratings than the Indy 500. Look for that to continue, but the fact remains … open-wheel racing will be better off in the long run.

Patrick, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal (19-year-old son of open-wheel champion Buddy Rahal) are the signal of things to come in open-wheel racing, and assuming the brass doesn’t get stupid and screw things up again, American open-wheel racing could be staring at a prolonged period of relevance again.

Win is a Win

There’s just no pleasing some people as far as Danica Patrick is concerned.

For three years, critics wondered aloud when – or if – Patrick would win her first race. When she won the Japan Indy 300 this past weekend, many of the same critics said she didn’t deserve the victory, as if winning a race on fuel mileage negates a win.

If Jimmie Johnson’s win at Phoenix two weekends ago stands, so should Patrick’s checkered flag.
Fuel mileage is a strategy that sometimes rears its ugly head in racing; fans may not like it, but it’s there. Do you think Greg Biffle would give back his Daytona Pepsi 400 victory because he did it on fuel mileage? Or Casey Mears, who won the Coca-Cola 600 the same way last year?

Of course not. So why should Patrick do the same?

When Patrick led laps and finished fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, I knew it would only be a matter of time before she won a race. And her move before last season to Andretti-Green Racing only reinforced that belief – Patrick’s move to AGR could be compared to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s move this year to Hendrick Motorsports – the series’ biggest star moving to the most dominant team on the circuit.

If Patrick can continue her success and win another race or two this season – particularly if one of those is the Indy 500 – then the IRL is in fantastic shape. The national sports consciousness doesn’t pay as much attention to open-wheel racing as it used to, but when Patrick is running well and finding success, the eyes do turn her – and the series’ – way.

The historical ramifications of Patrick’s win are obvious, but I prefer to think about what it might mean for the IRL’s overall health in the future. Obviously, if Patrick stays and keeps winning, the IRL is in good shape. But if she wins a few more races and then follows Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. to NASCAR, then that’s a big blow to open-wheel racing.

The newly-unified IndyCar Series needs to keep its stars, and there’s no star bigger than Danica Patrick.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Boo, hiss?

Daytona 500 winner ... and not much else

Sure, Ryan Newman won this year's Daytona 500, the ultimate recipient of good fortune and the right push at the right time. Let's face it, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch had the dominant cars that February afternoon, but Newman used his teammate's draft to take the checkered flag.

But after losing his second motor of the season Saturday night in Phoenix, Newman plummeted to 12th in the standings, thanks to a 43rd-place finish.

Ask Jeff Gordon how much those dead-last days hurt.

Newman's free-fall does nothing but prove that winning the Daytona 500 doesn't exactly translate into momentum. It can, if you win the 500 with a dominant car -- say, if Busch had pulled it off. But if you Derrick Cope the thing, I'm not convinced momentum carries over to the next few races, if not the entire season.

It's nice being known as a race winner for the rest of the season, and there's a certain amount of perstige that goes with having "Daytona 500 champion" attached to your name, but continued success isn't guaranteed by taking the most coveted of NASCAR checkered flags.

Just ask Kevin Harvick.

Missing you

You think Matt Kenseth misses Robbie Reiser?

I'd say so; for years, the combination of Reiser and Kenseth was a contender every single week -- even taking the final "true" Cup championship before NASCAR introduced the Chase. Under Reiser's direction, Kenseth's crew was the best in the series, and a large reason why Kenseth was so strong week in and week out.

Reiser moved into the front office at Roush-Fenway Racing this past offseason to take the general manager's position -- a job designed to keep him with his family more often. Which was all well and good, but Reiser missed being at the track. And when Bob Osbourne was suspended after Carl Edwards failed post-race inspection at Las Vegas, Reiser filled in for those six weeks.

So far, Edwards has added another win and ran strong at Phoenix. Kenseth? He's stuck in 15th in the points and had a disastrous night in the desert. He lost a tire at Phoenix and smacked the wall before finishing 38th, and the normally consistent Kenseth goes into the off-week with just one top-five (Fontana).

Part of it is dealing with new crew chief Chip Bolin. I've no doubt Bolin is a solid crew chief, a guy who knows what he's doing atop the pit box. But the chemistry isn't there yet, and Kenseth is likely still trying to figure out how to communicate with Bolin.

A sign things aren't looking up? After he smacked the wall at Phoenix, Kenseth came over his radio and blasted, "That's what happens when we don't do our jobs."

There's a definite possibility Kenseth won't make the Chase this year if the No. 17 team doesn't get its act together -- and fast.

Boo birds?

Mark Martin nearly won the race at Phoenix Saturday night, leading 68 laps before having to pit for fuel with 10 to go. The veteran and fan favorite finished fifth, his best finish this season driving the No. 8 Chevrolet.

But it begs the question -- if Martin were to win a race this year, how would the fans react? Would they cheer Martin, as they have for more than two decades, or would the fans -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, specifically -- lash out against the car NASCAR's most popular driver used to drive?

A car some believe he should still be driving, since his late father founded the company that owns it.

I won't get into the specifics of why Earnhardt left Dale Earnhardt, Inc. -- that was spoken of repeatedly last season -- but it's not a stretch to say some fans wish nothing but ill fortune on Teresa Earnhardt and DEI for what happened with Junior.

For Martin Truex Jr. to win a race would be one thing -- the No. 1 wasn't Junior's ride. But if Martin -- or Aric Almirola -- parks the No. 8 in Victory Lane even once this year (what if that car wins before Junior does in his new ride?), I don't see the reception being so warm.

Which is unfortunate, considering everything Martin has done for the sport. If Martin wins a race, I hope the fans celebrate him and direct their venom where it belongs: to the widow who did her part to make sure Dale Earnhardt's legacy would be carried out somewhere other than within the walls of his great company.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hendrick back?

Is Hendrick Motorsports back after Jimmie Johnson’s win at Phoenix Saturday night?

That depends on if you think they went anywhere in the first place. Personally, I never bought that Hendrick was struggling, even though Jeff Gordon already has three DNFs this season and Johnson had a terrible stretch at Las Vegas and Atlanta.

If anything, Hendrick’s perceived troubles are the result of other teams catching up. Roush-Fenway has made monstrous gains in the new car, as evidenced in Carl Edwards’ series-leading three wins. Joe Gibbs has given Toyota a huge push, with the big surprise being that of the team’s two wins so far this season, Tony Stewart has none.

If anything, Hendrick is merely the victim of other teams finally figuring things out.

And considering Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third in points, 86 behind leader Jeff Burton, things aren’t all bad for Hendrick. Earnhardt has finished in the top-10 in all but two races so far this year (a crash at Fontana and a 12th-place finish at Texas) and has led 355 laps – the third-highest total in the series.

Add Johnson’s win to the mix. Sure, he won the race on a fuel-mileage call, but the car was good enough that it might’ve won the race even if fuel had never become an issue. Gordon isn’t going to spend the entire season struggling, and expect Casey Mears to contend more as the year progresses.

Everyone talks about how Hendrick Motorsports is back, when the reality is, they never really went anywhere.

Testing, testing …

Give Aaron Fike this: his admission to ESPN the Magazine to driving at least one Craftsman Truck Series race while high on heroin shined the light on one of NASCAR’s most glaring problems:

Its drug-testing policy.

Do I think NASCAR has a huge drug problem? No, but how can we be sure if we’re not testing everyone consistently and at random? The policy is one of suspicion; if NASCAR doesn’t think you have a problem, it won’t test you.

While NASCAR thinks that’s a good way to go, I’m not as convinced. I wouldn’t necessarily say performance-enhancing drugs are a big deal in auto racing, but if guys are shooting heroin before strapping in and driving a few hundred laps, NASCAR needs to take a look.

Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart all said this past weekend at Phoenix that at no point in their NASCAR careers have they ever been drug-tested.

Harvick even went so far as to practically beg to be tested.

In the other major sports, the leagues push for drug reform, while the players resist. In NASCAR, it’s the other way around. In this instance, the drivers have it right. Sure, everyone in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Truck Series might be clean … but how do we know if we’re not testing?

I don’t know if random testing will serve as a deterrent, but it has a better chance of catching the next Aaron Fike before he straps in high on something. NASCAR’s dangerous enough when you’re competing sober. Why would anyone want someone out there under the influence of something?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I'm Back!!

You’d Be Flippin’ Crazy to Count Out This Guy

Anyone think Carl Edwards isn’t a serious contender for the Sprint Cup after his performance in the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway?

If so, you’re a damned fool. Also known as Robby Gordon.

Edwards already had two wins this season: Fontana and Las Vegas. And had his transmission held up in Atlanta, he probably would’ve won there too, as strong as his car was. Edwards has the intermediate tracks figured out better than anyone else this season, and to seriously contend for the title, one needs to run better on these tracks than anywhere else.

Think about it: four restrictor-plate races, six short-track tilts, two road courses. Everything else is of the intermediate variety – mostly 1.5-mile “cookie cutter” tracks. He who runs best on those more than likely hoists the trophy after Homestead.

Kyle Busch will contend, as will Dale Earnhardt Jr. (don’t let his 12th-place egg on Sunday fool you). And to discount Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart because of early struggles would be like adding Jeremy Mayfield to your fantasy roster.

Edwards has performed this well under criticism and without crew chief Bob Osbourne. He also admitted after winning on Sunday that he was holding back a little bit. If that’s the case, the rest of the Sprint Cup Series is in trouble.

Car Critics, Meet Mr. McDowell

Show of hands: before Friday, how many people had never heard of Michael McDowell?

Thought so.

McDowell made a name for himself in the worst way possible, hitting the wall head-on during his qualifying run at Texas and flipping eight times before coming to rest on the apron, on fire and in pieces.

Yet McDowell went on to finish 33rd in the race and is doing the talk show circuit. Can you imagine him talking sway bars and wedge to Ellen Degeneres?

Neither can I.

The reason McDowell can make these rounds is the increased safety of the sport – specifically the new car. You know, the boxy thing with the ugly rear wing that drives like a fresh piece of dog excrement?

Sure, the energy-absorbing SAFER barriers helped – even if the crash broke them – and the HANS device did its job. But without the new car and its safety advancements, McDowell might’ve still been looking at a helicopter ride to the local hospital at best.

Imagine: a taller cockpit (which helps the taller dudes, like McDowell and his boss, Michael Waltrip). Energy-absorbing foam on the driver’s side of the car. A front splitter and a rear wing that most of the time makes spinning a car out harder. An automatic fire extinguishing system next to the fuel cell, designed to put a fire out right as it starts (which it did in McDowell’s case). The driver’s seat moved four inches to the right, closer to the center of the car. That way, in wrecks like McDowell’s (or J.J. Yeley’s on Sunday, where the driver’s side hits), the driver is further away from the impact, and not as much of the energy gets to him.

McDowell walked away from his wreck with a smile because of all these advancements, advancements that make me an unequivocal advocate for this car. Sure, they drive poorly – that makes for better racing and if the crew chiefs are any good, they’ll figure the thing out before too much longer anyway.

But drivers are coming away from horrible-looking wrecks unscathed. And given how everyone felt when Dale Earnhardt died, that’s an advancement I can live with.

Mayfield Loses Ride – To Guy He Replaced

You know things are bad when a team fires you and replaces you with … the guy you replaced.

That’s exactly what happened to Jeremy Mayfield, who Haas CNC Racing released on Tuesday in favor of Johnny Sauter. Sauter will drive the No. 70 Impala at Phoenix this weekend, but isn’t solidified as the permanent replacement.

Still, considering the team let Sauter go in the off-season in favor of Mayfield, this has to be embarrassing for the five-time Cup winner.

"Jeremy's proven resume behind the wheel of a Cup car was a real benefit to our team," team general manager Joe Custer said on "He stepped into the seat and did everything we asked him to and more.

"Ultimately, we were unable to provide him with the right balance, handling and speed he needed to be successful. We wish Jeremy nothing but the best for his future.”

Wait … the team couldn’t give Mayfield everything he needed, but Mayfield’s the one getting canned? I’m no Mayfield apologist – if anything, he needs to apologize for his lack of talent – but that seems a little backwards to me.

Then again, I guess a team can’t fire itself.