Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hey Now, You're an All-Star

Kahne wins -- thanks to the fans

Kasey Kahne needed the fan vote to make this year's Sprint All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway, thanks to a nearly two-year long winless drought, and he made sure those fans went home happy Saturday night by winning the race.

Kahne started third in final segment, taking the lead from Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. From there, Kahne held off Greg Biffle to claim his $1 million prize.

"I thank them so much," Kahne told the Associated Press. "I can't believe it. The car was mediocre in the open and the fans voted me in."

Kahne finished a distant fifth in the Sprint Showdown, which A.J. Allmendinger won. Sam Hornish Jr. finished second to secure the other transfer spot into the field. But Kahne took advantage of a rule some just aren't in favor of.

Kyle Busch, the event's polesitter, won the first segment going away, but fell back in the second segment when he lost a cylinder and eventually his motor. Carl Edwards won the second segment before Roush Fenway teammate Biffle took Segment 3, taking the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 11 laps left when Earnhardt began losing the handle on his ride.

Amazingly, the event finished without a single caution -- all three incidents occurred in the Sprint Showdown. Some might construe that as a boring race, but considering some of the near-wrecks we saw in the All-Star Challenge and the amount of side-by-side racing I saw, I refute that opinion.

Just no pleasing some people

I've already linked you to one man's opinion regarding the fan vote in the Sprint All-Star Challenge. There have also been those who feel the race isn't that big a deal considering everyone gets a shot at it.

Why call it an all-star race if nearly everyone can run in it?

But one thing I've noticed the past few years is this: any time NASCAR has the audacity to change something, people are up in arms. They introduce the Chase For The Cup, people are mad. Rockingham shuts down, fans are livid. Darlington loses its Labor Day race to California and ... okay, I actually agree with the haters on that one.

There are still people unhappy with the new car, in spite of its obvious safety advances and the fact that the racing is starting to get better every week.

Never mind that any company looking to succeed has to change at some point. Status quo leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads, eventually, to losing money. And if NASCAR were to lose money, and do so for an extended period of time, eventually the sport would fade to nothingness.

Just ask Champ Car and the IRL.

Even when NASCAR makes a change I don't agree with, I usually understand the reasoning behind it. And I'm willing to give just about any change a shot before forming a final opinion; I hated the Chase when it was first announced, but once I saw the drama surrounding who would get in and who would win it all, I was convinced this was a successful -- if contrived -- idea.

Are certain parts of the All-Star Challenge gimmicky? Yeah, but what all-star game these days isn't? The fan vote is one more way for fans to get involved with the sport, and it helps generate interest for the race. And with Kasey Kahne winning both the vote and the race tonight, there has to be something said for the fans choosing a guy who can wheel it, right?

Besides, it's still better than the Pro Bowl.

I joke with my friend Kenny all the time that he's merely a "fat white guy afraid of change," but sadly it seems most NASCAR fans are that way. I understand their frustrations to a degree, but I don't see any of the changes that have been made in the past decade as reason enough to turn my back on the sport.

As long as the engines still fire and there's still a trophy on the line, I'm still a NASCAR fan.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Musings After Darlington

Grow Up

All Kyle Busch is doing is further proving his own immaturity.

Busch, who won at Darlington in convincing fashion Saturday night, has relished the attention he's received since his incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond, and on Saturday proceeded to egg on the fans who were booing and throwing beer cans at him. Pretending to wipe off a tear, cupping his hand around his ear, asking for fans to throw full beer cans so he could drink one on the way to Victory Lane ... the boy doesn't know when to quit.

Relishing the Bad Boy role in NASCAR is one thing -- inciting a fan base that already detests you is just stupid. Dale Earnhardt Sr. never pushed the fans like that, and neither did Jeff Gordon. Even Tony Stewart never went that far -- he saved all his venom for the media and his fellow competitors.

Such immaturity shows a lack of respect -- for his competitors and for the fans, who are what this sport is all about. Stewart understands how important the fans are -- even the ones who hate him -- and my guess is most drivers realize that. Busch instead sees the hatred as an insult and sees fit to turn that around and throw it back at the fans.

Racing is karmic in the sense that the less respect you show on and off the track, the more it will eventually show in your results. I realize Busch is in the top five in all three national touring series, and has a combined eight wins this season, but if he keeps this up, he'll see why Rick Hendrick got rid of him last year without so much as a blink of his eye.

Busch is an amazing talent -- probably one of the best in the Sprint Cup Series -- but unless and until he grows up, that won't matter.

Questionable career move -- maybe

The Associated Press is reporting that should Tony Stewart leave Joe Gibbs Racing, the team would likely pursue Greg Biffle, who will be a free agent at the end of this season. Biffle stated repeatedly he would like to re-sign with Roush Fenway Racing, but after a disappointing finish Saturday at Darlington, Biffle expressed his frustration in no uncertain terms.

"It is really frustrating, but you know what, I've just come accustomed to expecting it because week after week, it's something," Biffle said in the AP piece. "Something breaks. Something falls off. I give it 110 percent as a driver all the time, and you just want your equipment to last and be able to win these races."

Ouch ... certainly a different tune than the one Biffle had been singing. And with Carl Edwards off the market following his extension with Roush, Biffle could very well be the Sprint Cup Series' most prized free agent this coming offseason -- unless Stewart opts out of JGR for 2009.

But would Biffle be a good fit driving the No. 20? The equipment and the team will certainly be there, but does Biffle really want to play third fiddle behind the kids -- Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch? Biffle's had to take a back seat before -- to guys like Mark Martin, Edwards and Matt Kenseth -- but none of those guys have the ego that Hamlin and Busch have.

How would Biffle respond to that?

Biffle already has Craftsman Truck and Busch Series championships, so he wants the best shot possible to win a Cup title. And if this season is any indication, JGR might be the best place to go (though Roush's No. 99 and Rick Hendrick's No. 88 might have something to say about that). I'm just not sure the personalities would all mesh.

Biffle seems to be a little too right in the head for Gibbs' bunch of hotheaded talents.

Friday, May 9, 2008

I'm Swearing Off M&M's

Bad Boyz

“I didn’t see them go into one – was too busy worrying about Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick immediately behind me, but I saw them go into three and when I saw Junior spin up and hit the wall, I thought, ‘Oooooooooooooooooh, my God … I’m no longer the bad boy at Gibbs.’”

That was Tony Stewart on his weekly Sirius radio show this week, talking about the big dust-up Saturday night between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch. Stewart’s attempt at humor notwithstanding, his sentiment is clear and unmistakable: Busch has supplanted Stewart as the bad guy, not just at Joe Gibbs Racing, but in the Sprint Cup Series.

I’m not here to argue whether or not Busch dumped Earnhardt on purpose – those who feel he did won’t be swayed, and neither will those who feel it was just one of “them racin’ deals.” But the fact is indisputable: Busch’s already suspect reputation grew worse in an instant in Virginia’s capital city.

Busch suffers some from the fact that he’s Kurt Busch’s younger brother, no doubt. Kurt had his share of run-ins in the beginning of his career – including a particularly famous incident involving Jimmy Spencer’s fist – so there is some guilt by association.

I even remember then-crew chief Alan Gustofson telling me in Richmond four years ago, “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure Kyle doesn’t turn into his brother.”

But since coming into the Sprint Cup Series, Kyle has actually surpassed his brother in notoriety. Kyle has had several run-ins with the likes of Stewart and Harvick, but until the Coca-Cola 600 two years ago, I was a Kyle Busch fan.

Late in the race at Charlotte, Casey Mears – then driving for Chip Ganassi – spun coming off Turn 4 and wrecked. Kyle, purely a victim, was caught up in the wreck, ruining what was a pretty decent run.

Under caution, Kyle had to be restrained by track officials, throwing his HANS device as Mears passed him. An unfortunate wreck that was no one’s fault, and Kyle took issue with merely being a victim of bad timing.

Such immaturity hasn’t been well tolerated by the fans, who rain boos on Kyle perhaps more vehemently for those directed Stewart or Jeff Gordon’s way. To deny the sport’s most popular driver of his first win in two years – intentionally or otherwise – will only make the reception worse.

Not that Kyle will care; he needs to worry more about how his fellow competitors view him. Earnhardt took the high road publicly, but what’s the deal behind the scenes? There are some guys on the track guys know they can’t race clean with, and I can’t help but wonder if Kyle is becoming one of those drivers.

If NASCAR wanted a bad boy to spice things up, they certainly got it last weekend in Richmond.

Too fast?

Darlington has been repaved, and all indications are the Track Too Tough to Tame has become faster than ever. Testing and practice speeds pushing 200 miles an hour on the straightaway … all on a race track once said to handle no more than 150.

Is 200 too fast for Darlington? A track that eats tires and is about as wide as a sidewalk … I’m not so sure this is a recipe for good racing.

The first race at a track after it’s repaved is always a little bit of a borefest. Single-file racing, trying to find grip where there is none – but now add these insane speeds, and it might just be too much.

Faster cars don’t always make for better racing.

That’s not to say 200 MPH is always a bad thing – those speeds are commonplace in Atlanta and Texas – and were it not for restrictor plates, the cars would easily surpass that at Daytona and Talladega. But what happens when cars go too fast?

Ask Bobby Allison after his wreck at Talladega. You know, in the last race before the invention of restrictor plates? The one where Allison spun, got airborne and took out an eight-foot section of fence.

That fence being the only thing keeping Allison’s car from getting personal with the fans.

Now, I don’t see that happening at Darlington this weekend; the new car is specifically designed for safer racing. But I can’t help but think 200 MPH is far too quick for Darlington.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Busch League

Before I get into the bulk of this entry, let me first congratulate Clint Bowyer on his victory in the Crown Royal Present the Dan Lowry 400 at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night. Some might call your second career win sheer luck, but you put yourself in a position to contend at the end, and you took advantage of the opportunity presented to you.

The fastest car doesn't always win the race -- and Saturday that car belonged to Chesterfield, Va. native Denny Hamlin. Hamlin started on the pole and led 381 of the 400 laps, spanking the field in a way not seen since Jeff Burton led every lap at New Hampshire in 2000. But when Hamlin felt a tire going down in the closing stages, he saw his victory slip away as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch split him coming off Turn 2.

Earnhardt took the lead, much to the delight of many in the sellout crowd, and were it not for Hamlin, Earnhardt would've ended his 72-race winless drought running away.

Slowing more as his right front tire kept losing air, Hamlin slowed off Turn 4 with 10 to go and stopped high on the track, prompting the caution -- and negating the one-second lead Earnhardt had built over Busch. NASCAR felt Hamlin did this on purpose, penalizing him two laps; it was the right move, considering the moment the yellow flew, Hamlin sped back up and went about his merry way again.

I realize he was disappointed in losing the race on his hometown track, but his move was immature, classless and complete bush league. Instead of letting the race play out and accepting his fate as it unfolded, Hamlin acted like a spoiled brat, in effect helping his teammate and ensuring that many of the 120,000 on hand went home unhappy.

Earnhardt had a long-run car, certainly not the type of machine one wants for a five-lap shootout. But he got a good restart in the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet, pulling ahead three car lengths before taking the high line in Turn 1. Earnhardt later admitted his car wouldn't stick to the bottom, so he had no choice but to give Busch the bottom line.

And for a few laps, it worked -- Busch would inch alongside Earnhardt in the corners, but Junior's car would use the momentum to hold off Busch on the straightaways.

Well, until Turn 3 with three laps to go.

Busch and Earnhardt made contact going into the corner -- which isn't unheard of at Richmond, particularly when the laps start winding down. But once contact was established, Busch turned right, sending Earnhardt spinning into the wall and Bowyer to the lead.

It was a typical move for Busch, someone with unlimited ability with none of the maturity to go along with it. Sure, he has two Sprint Cup wins so far this season and he took the points lead after Richmond, but there had to be a reason Rick Hendrick let him go after last season -- and I think it went beyond the chance to sign Earnhardt.

Earnhardt's father did this sort of thing a lot in his day, I grant (just ask Terry Labonte about Bristol and watch his mustache turn grey). And he was equally reviled for it; the reason the late Dale Earnhardt had more of a following than Busch was because Earnhardt Sr. had the pedigree to back up his attitude -- to the tune of seven Cup titles.

Busch has yet to win a championship, on any of NASCAR's national levels. His brother Kurt is the one with championship hardware.

What Busch did was classless and indicative of the kind of person he is -- one who's going to find himself in a heap of trouble if he keeps it up -- but Busch's mistake is moot it Hamlin doesn't pull his stunt to bring out the next-to-last caution.

Between Hamlin, Busch and Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs Racing is gaining quite the reputation for classless, immature racing. I can't help but wonder if the ol' coach wishes he'd stayed with the Redskins with the way his drivers are acting of late.

I just hope young Joey Logano -- who won his ARCA debut Sunday at Rockingham -- isn't this much of a punk.