Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Green Flag Drops on Silly Season

As expected, Hendrick Motorsports announced on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that Casey Mears would not return to the No. 5 car in 2009. The move was first reported following last week's race at Sonoma, where it was rumored Mark Martin would fill the ride after leaving the No. 8 car and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. behind.

While Rick Hendrick would not address who will drive the No. 5 car next season, his confirmation of Mears' departure made official a move I hoped wouldn't come. At 24th in points, Mears was the odd man out at Hendrick anyway, considering the success of his three teammates. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have six Sprint Cup titles between them, and new guy Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits third in points in his first season with the team.

Mears finished fifth at Infineon last weekend, and won last year's Coca-Cola 600 on excellent fuel strategy, but Mears never clicked at Hendrick, much like he didn't click at Target Chip Ganassi before. Mears is rumored to be a lead candidate to pilot Richard Childress' fourth Cup car next season, but there comes a point where one must ask: is the 31-year-old Mears really cut out for the Sprint Cup Series?

I hate to ask this, because Mears is a talented driver and a class act. He deserves a chance in the series, but if he couldn't flourish with one of the series' most successful organization, what are the chances he'll find sustained success elsewhere? Anything's possible, but I sadly don't see it.

Stories told that Hendrick's son Ricky -- who before he died in that 2004 plane crash owned part of his father's Nationwide Series ride -- talked Hendrick out of putting Mears in that car, choosing instead Brian Vickers. The move has paid off more or less for Vickers, but Mears could've turned that seat time into experience and found more success on the Cup level.

As for Martin, will he make one more run at the Sprint Cup championship? If he wants, Hendrick isn't a bad place to go. Even so, with rampant speculation regarding the future of JR Motorsports -- a Nationwide Series operation co-owned by Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick, rumors have Martin splitting the No. 5 car with Brad Keselowski.

Though I think Keselowski, who sits second in Nationwide Series points, isn't ready to drive a Cup car yet, I can't argue with the notion of having Martin mentor him.

This is a bad deal for Mears, even though he realizes his performance justified the move. I hope Mears finds his footing, even if he has to leave the Sprint Cup Series to do it.

Elsewhere ...

-Greg Biffle finally signed that three-year extension with Roush-Fenway Racing, keeping him with the organization he's spent his entire NASCAR career in through 2011. Biffle will have 3M as his primary sponsor.

Biffle is seventh in Cup points, looking to make the Chase and hopefully win a few races along the way. Considering his success with Roush-Fenway -- he won Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series titles, and finished second in the Sprint Cup standings in 2006 -- I'm not one to argue against The Biff.

-Forget those Clint-Bowyer-to-Hendrick rumors (thanks a lot, -- the third-year Cup driver also announced a three-year extension at NHMS. Bowyer, who won his first Cup race at Loudon last September, will stay with Richard Childress Racing through 2011.

-Tony Stewart acknowledged the Casey Mears situation on Friday at New Hampshire, telling's David Caraviello, "Absolutely (I would look at the No. 5 car). You've got to. There's nobody in the garage area that's not going to look in that direction. You've got to look at that."

While I'm sure Kyle Busch would argue the "anyone would look at the No. 5 car" point, Stewart's admission is a rare sign of honesty in what is normally a very hush-hush time in the sport. Do I think Stewart will drive the No. 5? No -- much as some fantasy geeks might love it, I don't see a super team of Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart -- but you can't deny the leverage the opening at Hendrick will give Stewart when he goes to ask Joe Gibbs for a release from his contract.

If anything, Stewart is more likely to take the offer at Haas-CNC Racing, if for no other reason than the chance to gain partial ownership of a Cup team. While that operation is in serious need of a makeover, I don't doubt Stewart desperately wants in on the ownership aspect of the sport, and I don't see established names like Gibbs or Hendrick giving him that.

-Don't look now, but DEI could be in trouble. Martin Truex Jr., the leading man at DEI since Dale Earnhardt Jr. left for Hendrick Motorsports, isn't happy with his team's performance this season. Truex made the Chase last season and won his first career race at Dover, but this year Truex sits 17th in points with just four top-10 finishes.

Apparently, lead driver at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. doesn't mean what it used to.

Truex is unhappy for many of the same reasons Earnhardt was in his last few years at DEI -- a lack of resources and horsepower when compared to the other top teams in the Sprint Cup Series (not to mention Junior blew about a million motors last year). On top of that, Truex and the team have yet to agree on an option for 2009. If no agreement is reached, Truex will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Would Truex join his friend Earnhardt at Hendrick? Highly doubtful -- the recently-open No. 5 appears destined for Mark Martin -- but Truex will have options, especially if Stewart opts out at Gibbs. Ryan Newman's future with Roger Penske's team is also in question, providing another potential open seat should Truex decide to give Teresa Earnhardt his walking papers.

When it was announced last weekend that Martin would leave DEI after this season, the Army also announced it would be leaving the team. So as it stands now, DEI is losing a top-flight driver, a sponsor with deep pockets and possibly another talented wheel man.

If all of this pans out as expected, DEI will enter 2009 with four cars, two sponsorship deals and three unproven drivers in Aric Almirola, Regan Smith and Paul Menard (though to call Menard unproven instead of bad is being charitable).

Something tells me this isn't exactly what the late Dale Earnhardt had in mind when he first formed DEI all those years ago, and certainly not what he had in mind when he decided to leave the company to Teresa upon the event of his passing. A lot of fans are still mad she let Junior get away, and will likely see this fallout as nothing more than the racing gods exacting karma on Teresa for what she's done to her late husband's company.

DEI was supposed to be the Earnhardt legacy -- for both Senior and Junior. But as it stands now, if things don't change -- and fast -- DEI could wind up being DOA.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How Do We Turn Right, Again?

There isn't a whole lot to discuss regarding the race itself from this past weekend at Sonoma. Kyle Busch won the race in surprisingly dominant fashion, with David Gilliland coming in second and Jeff Gordon third.

Instead, the big news seemed to come from off the track. So we'll hit that instead.

Five and Done?

Apparently, Casey Mears won't be returning to Hendrick Motorsports after all. Earlier this season, Hendrick said Mears was secure in the No. 5 Chevrolet, and that he would finish out his contract, which expires in 2009. But Mears, who won the 2007 Coca-Cola 600, has struggled all season, lounging about in 24th in points while his three teammates are solidly in the top 10.

So even with his fifth-place finish on Sunday, Mears appears out of Hendrick (cue everyone who said Mears should've gotten the boot last year, not Kyle Busch). And there are rumors that Richard Childress is high on Mears, ready to put him in the No. 33 General Mills car next season.

But the bulk of the intrigue comes in who could replace him.'s Marty Smith said numerous sources told him Mark Martin will leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc. after the season, in effect giving the No. 8 car to Aric Almirola, to join Hendrick Motorsports. Speculation runs from Martin running part-time and mentoring Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski to Martin running full-time for one last shot at the Sprint Cup.

I tend to think the former is more likely -- Martin has shown no desire to be a full-time driver since leaving Roush-Fenway Racing -- but can you imagine how exciting the latter would be? A driver of that caliber in a Hendrick car ... Martin would be a contender from day one, and is there anyone without a Cup title who deserves one?

Martin, one of the series' most respected drivers, has finished second in the standings four times and never won the title, so one more shot with one of the sport's best teams would be a perfect storybook ending to one of the best NASCAR careers ever.

But would Martin go through that again? Or would he help Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick by developing Keselowski? Either way, it's an interesting proposition -- though I still think the big Silly Season domino is Tony Stewart; where he goes will dictate where a lot of others -- namely guys like Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. -- end up.


Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke on Friday about how much he doesn't care for the road course at Infineon Raceway, a place where he's never finished higher than 11th (he finished 12th on Sunday). Junior spoke about how technical the course is, and how hard that is for him to maneuver.

"Oh, I'm gonna screw up ," he told the media on Friday. "Trust me, I'll screw up ... Impossible to pass. Where do you pass? A couple of brake zones, but that's about it. You just wait on people to screw up.

"I think I can get through Watkins Glen (the other road course on the Sprint Cup schedule) okay, but I just don't run well here. Never liked coming here. Don't like the track, it's not a fun track to compete on. It's fun to go around and goof off and raise a little bit of hell. I don't like being in competition on it."

But here's a reason we may be overlooking: Sonoma is where Junior almost lost his life in July 2004 [video here]. During practice for an American Le Mans Series race, Junior lost control of his car and smacked the wall. The fuel cell burst, creating a massive fire, and Junior suffered burns that affected him in the next month of the Cup Series (he couldn't even finish the following week's race at New Hampshire, where Martin Truex Jr. had to relieve him).

Though Junior was pulled out of the car safely, a few more seconds and he would've joined his late father in the great Victory Lane in the sky. Junior even admitted later the only reason he survived that crash was because he felt his father helping pull him out of the car. I usually don't believe in that sort of thing, but given some of the unexplainable circumstances Junior has endured in his career, I won't deny it.

Drivers will never admit fear, or that a particular wreck haunts them, but any time a wreck becomes life-threatening, that has to stick with a guy.

In fact, I'd be more worried about a guy if a wreck like that didn't bother him.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Davey Allison Was The Man

Pick One

For months now, pundits and critics asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he was going to win another race. Sunday, after Earnhardt took the Lifelock 400 at Michigan, some of those same critics claimed Danica and said the win wasn't real, that it wasn't deserved.

Granted, two of those critics were Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth, two guys with good cars who felt they deserved a shot at the win.

The best car doesn't always win the race. Often, strategy and luck play into that. We don't get on Clint Bowyer's case for winning at Richmond back in May, and we aren't screaming for Jimmie Johnson to give back his Phoenix trophy -- which he won on fuel mileage. So what makes Junior's win on Sunday any less legit?

Some will mention passing the pace car, which I grant he did on more than one occasion. But once NASCAR told him to stop, he did. And near as I can tell, there's no such rule in the rulebook (assuming, of course, this is a NASCAR rule book ... no one seems to be able to find it).

I know one thing, though ... NASCAR will make it a rule from here on out. Because as we all know, the rule book is written in pencil.

There is the name, I grant: when your father is a guy who won seven Winston Cup titles and 76 career races -- and you just so happen to bear his first name -- there's pressure. Particularly once you leave your family's team to drive for one of the top organizations in the sport, an organization that since 1995 has won seven Cup championships.

And if we took luck out of the equation, Sunday could've been Junior's fourth win of the season. He was leading at Richmond late -- got wrecked. He was one of the strongest cars at Talladega before Bobby Labonte forced Tony Stewart into him. And Charlotte? If that tire doesn't go down, Junior's car was easily the best once the sun went down.

For all those who view Dale Earnhardt Jr. as nothing more than a talentless hack, consider the following evidence:

-Third in the Sprint Cup Series standings this season, 84 points behind Kyle Busch.

-18 career Cup Series wins (more than Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ernie Irvan, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards -- guys one might consider better than Junior).

-Sprint Cup Series wins at: Richmond, Texas, Bristol, Michigan, Daytona, Talladega, Dover, Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte (2000 Winston All-Star Race).

-Series-high six wins in 2004, finishing fifth in the final standings.

-2004 Daytona 500 winner.

-Finished a career-best third in the Sprint Cup standings in 2003.

-1998 and 1999 Nationwide Series champion.

Doesn't sound like the talentless son of a legend who has no place in the sport. I won't sit here and say Junior is the best driver in the series (though I am a fan), but it's not like he's a hunk of chopped liver on the track either. So he went 76 races without a win -- have we forgotten that his father once went 60 races winless? Or that Rusty Wallace once went 105 races without visiting Victory Lane?

These things always go in cycles -- even Kasey Kahne went over 50 races before finding the checkered flag in Charlotte last month. People who know auto racing know how talented Junior is, just as they know luck and good equipment have as much to do with things as actual driver ability.

How else can we explain someone as talented as Tony Stewart being winless so far this season? It's certainly not a lack of ability or effort.

Of course, the last two years, Junior has been in inferior equipment and in a heap of drama at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He'll never admit, but I'm fairly certain his performance last year (six blown motors) was a direct result of his fallout with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt --cue the conspiracy theorists who claim she did that to his cars on purpose out of spite. I won't argue the notion.

Will Junior win the title this year? Perhaps, and he's likely to win a couple more races this year. But to hoist the Cup after Homestead, he'll have to beat Busch and Edwards. But if one bothers to look past his name and pedigree, one will find that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is actually a good driver who'd due his fair share of breaks.

Too Fast, Son!

Hear the rumors that if Tony Stewart does leave Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of this season, Nationwide Series phenom Joey Logano might find himself in one of the top rides in the Sprint Cup Series? Or that Gibbs wants Logano to run a few Cup races this season?

Anyone else think this has the potential to really screw up this kid's career?

Logano became the youngest Nationwide Series winner ever on Saturday, taking the checkered flag in Kentucky in just his third career start. He's obviously a stud behind the wheel, but there's something to be said for putting him in the series' most dominant car with the best team. There's no guarantee the transition to Sprint Cup will be as easy.

Yes, I realize Logano has logged over 4,000 miles of testing in a Cup car. But testing and the race? Two completely different things ... and the talent level in the Cup Series is leaps and bounds over that in the Nationwide ranks.

Besides, putting that kid in the No. 20? A car that has won two Sprint Cup titles this decade? I realize Logano likes pressure -- anyone who's called "Sliced Bread" should -- but can someone so young really stand up to that?

And okay, to be honest, I don't want to corrupt this kid by making him spend every single weekend with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin yet. Logano seems like a nice enough kid -- why warp him so soon?

If Logano hops in a Cup car and promptly wins a race, I'll be the first to admit I was wrong. But I think it is far too soon to throw a talented kid who's spent his life dominating lesser talents into the fire like this.

I mean, look what it did to Michelle Wie.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

PR Nightmare

A former NASCAR official has filed a $225 million lawsuit, claiming sexual and racial discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Mauricia Grant, a black woman, worked as a technical inspector for the NASCAR Nationwide Series from January 2005 until last October, and she claims in the suit she was the repeated subject of sexual advances and crude jokes. She also explains how she feared a co-worker who often referenced the Klu Klux Klan.

Grant claims she was called such names as "Nappy-Headed Mo" and "Queen Sheba," and that when she turned down the sexual advances, her co-workers accused her of being homosexual.

"As an equal opportunity employer, NASCAR is fully committed to the spirit and letter of affirmative action law," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "NASCAR provides equal opportunity employment to job candidates and employees without regard to race, religion, creed, age, gender, or any other characteristic protected by law. Personnel decisions are made based on factors such as performance and adherence to corporate policy."

Because NASCAR has a zero-tolerance policy against harassment, Poston said NASCAR would investigate Grant's claims fully.

A more detailed list of allegations can be found by clicking the above link, but regardless of the truth in Grant's claims, this looks bad for NASCAR. Almost everyone I've talked to about this so far shrugged it off, citing that NASCAR is still a "Good Ol' Boys Club" and that crude humor is the nature of things in that sort of environment.

Problem is ... NASCAR isn't just a bunch of old and salty rednecks anymore. As much as some would like to believe that's still the case, NASCAR is a large, multi-billion-dollar-a-year corporation, and there is no room for such behavior in the corporate world. I won't argue whether or not Grant's claims are true, because I honestly don't know. But even if they aren't, this is big public relations problem for a sport desperate to shake its Southern roots.

Will this kill the sport? No, NASCAR's too big and it makes too much money. And unlike the current referee scandal rocking the NBA, this one has nothing to do with the actual competition. Still, if what Grant says turns out to be true, NASCAR better be ready to fire some people and open the checkbook for Grant. Even if NASCAR settles out of court, chances are Grant is going to pull in quite the pretty penny.

Even so, such allegations as this can paint a corporation in a very negative light, and NASCAR doesn't need that sort of publicity. I don't see this scandal turning away fans, but it may be damaging enough to prevent those who might've converted from coming over.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Hot Red

Is there anyone in the Sprint Cup Series right now hotter than Kasey Kahne? After his convincing win in the Pocono 500 on Sunday, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Kahne, who went winless in 2007 and before May appeared to be going through another struggle, has now won three of the last four Sprint Cup events, including back-to-back wins in the All-Star Challenge and Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. And if not for a wreck early at Dover last week, who knows how well Kahne would’ve run there?

Momentum has been a blessing for Kahne, who on Sunday led a race-high 69 laps. Momentum breeds confidence, something sorely lacking in Kahne’s No. 9 Budweiser team going back to last season. Kahne has nine career wins – and won a series-high six races in 2006 – so the talent was always there. Poor finishes and inconsistency meant the confidence and the luck weren’t.

But as points leader Kyle Busch hits a little bit of a rough stretch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to look for his first win in over two years, Kahne is the hottest driver in the circuit, now sitting ninth in points. If this run continues, Kahne will find himself solidly in the Chase for the Cup, with bonus points to boot.

Busch leads all drivers with 40 bonus points – thanks to series-high four wins – but Kahne now has 20. If this run continues, that number could jump another 10 or 20 before we hit July.

Historic Triple Wasted?

Kyle Busch made history this past weekend, competing in three different NASCAR races in three different states on three different nights. Lots of plane riding, lots of miles raced and lots of uncomfortable hours of sleep.

The end result? A second-place finish in the Craftsman Truck Series race on Friday at Texas Motor Speedway; a 20th-place effort in the Nationwide Series race in Nashville on Saturday; and a dead-last, 43rd-place finish in the Cup race at Pocono on Sunday.

Would Busch have finished 43rd in the Cup race even without running in the other two events? Maybe, maybe not, so I won’t sit here and argue running the other two races hurt his Sprint Cup effort. But after Busch lost a large chunk of his points lead (he now leads Jeff Burton, who finished fifth on Sunday, by a mere 21 points), one would imagine boss man J.D. Gibbs will ask Busch to tone down the frequent flyer miles.

Fans have to at least appreciate Busch’s desire to race, even if they don’t appreciate the way he goes about it. Listen to the TNT broadcast closely enough, and you can hear the fans collectively gasping in shock when Busch took responsibility for his wreck with Jamie McMurray.

Busch normally blames everyone else for an incident – even if it’s not that person’s fault. Right, Jason Leffler at Dover?

It was an interesting story to follow on a weekend where Big Brown failed in his attempt at horse racing’s Triple Crown, but ultimately, it’s not something I expect to see much of in the future. Had Busch finished in the top-10 at Pocono, his higher-ups at Joe Gibbs Racing might’ve tolerated another attempt in the coming weeks, but considering Busch needs to focus on his Cup ride, I don’t see this weekend’ results encouraging further stunts of this nature.

In the Navy

Congratulations to Brad Keselowski, who scored his first career NASCAR win in the Nationwide Series event at Nashville Superspeedway Saturday night. The win gives JR Motorsports its second-ever win – its first came in Last Vegas back in March, when Mark Martin visited Victory Lane.

While it’s unclear at the moment what Dale Earnhardt Jr. will do with this team in 2009 – rumors have had him turning JR Motorsports into a Sprint Cup operation – it is clear how talented a driver he has in the 23-year-old Keselowski. The Michigan native is fifth in the Nationwide point standings, the highest-ranking driver who doesn’t also compete in the Cup Series.

Can Keselowski seriously compete for the Nationwide Series title? It’s possible, given how fast and competitive he is every week. Though Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards will likely run the full schedule, Kyle Busch is undecided. That could help Keselowski’s chances significantly.

Regardless of who does or doesn’t run, though, I think Keselowski has a shot at the title. I won’t outright pick him to win it, but I do see at least two more wins in the young man’s future the rest of this season.

Brad Keselowski, one of the rising stars in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

To Pass or Not to Pass

SPEED Formula 1 analyst Peter Windsor said on Dave Despain’s show “Wind Tunnel” Sunday night that passing in auto racing is overrated, that to see something done so often diminishes its meaning and significance.

Windsor, a former F1 World Champion, likened passing to fishing; he said one does not fish to catch anything, but to wait for the bite. Waiting eight hours for a bite, Windsor says, and finally getting one is infinitely more thrilling than getting 55 bites in the same timeframe.

Which might be true for fishing, but that argument for racing is simply ludicrous. Racing without passing is nothing more than a high-speed parade, which the vast majority of F1 races are. Formula 1 is so technology-driven that cars are almost out of the drivers’ hands, and to see a pass on the track in F1 is to see something truly rare.

In NASCAR, as much as some fans complain of the lack of passing, such a thing isn’t so rare. Television will never capture every pass, every jockey for position, but to see a race in-person is to see the very thing Windsor apparently doesn’t want – lots of passing. The IndyCar Series also suffers from a serious case of passing, and the fans love it.

Sure, Formula 1 has 80 million fans worldwide – but in America, give us stock cars, machines a guy can muscle around a track around another car, even if you’re not better than the guy you’re passing.

We like NASCAR and the NFL. The world can have its F1 and soccer. And Windsor can have his high-speed parade.