Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More Racing, Less Dallenbach

Martin Truex Jr.'s departure from Dale Earnhardt, Inc. seems all but certain now, with him rumored to be moving to Penske Racing to take over the No. 12 car next season.

"But, Jeff," you say, "isn't Ryan Newman in that car?"

Well, yes, and he did luck into the Daytona 500 with it this year. But that win, along with Kurt Busch's in the rain Sunday at New Hampshire, has done little to convince Newman that Roger Penske was doing everything he could to make that a consistent winner on the Sprint Cup level (Penske's love is, and will always be, his open-wheel rides). Newman has told Penske officials numerous times he would leave at the end of the season should performance not pick up, and considering Newman sits 15th in points with just one top-5 finish, I'd say the team hasn't responded.

Not to mention Newman might lose sponsor Alltel at the end of the year. That has to hurt his status with the race team.

Ignoring for the moment the impact of Truex leaving DEI -- mostly because I waxed poetic about that in my last post -- is Penske really a step up for him? Truex won a race last year and qualified for the Chase for the Cup, and appeared to be ready to take on the mantle of head man at DEI with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s departure to Hendrick Motorsports. But neither DEI nor Penske are among the top tier of teams on the Sprint Cup circuit right now, and both seem to lag further behind as the weeks progress.

There are those who would wish to see Truex join his buddy Junior and take over the recently-vacated No. 5 at Hendrick, but he appears destined to replace Newman. Newman, meanwhile, appears penciled in at HAAS-CNC Racing; reports have Newman being Tony Stewart's lead driver should he opt out of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

But here's the rub: what if Stewart doesn't opt out? Where will Newman go then?

Don't think he'll drive the No. 5; that ride seems to have Mark Martin's name written all over it. The No. 16 and No. 07 are unavailable, since Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer both signed contract extensions last weekend at Loudon. Newman could potentially pilot Richard Childress' fourth car, but everything I've seen has that car going to Casey Mears.

If Stewart doesn't opt out, could Newman really be the odd man out in the Sprint Cup Series? I have a hard time believing a guy with 12 career Cup wins could be without a ride, but the fact remains: the good rides are few and far between.

Especially with Roush-Fenway having to consolidate to four cars next season and Target Chip Ganassi shutting down the No. 40 car. Speaking of ...

Guitar Hero, not Race Car Hero

Do you think Dario Franchitti's regretting his move to stock cars?

With news Tuesday that Chip Ganassi is folding the No. 40 team due to a lack of sponsorship, it appears yet another setback has gotten in Franchitti's way. Franchitti, who in 2007 won both the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series title, has struggled this season.

Need proof? Try the following:

-Career-best finish of 22nd at Martinsville.

-Failed to qualify for races in Texas and Sonoma.

-41st in Sprint Cup points.

-Missed five Sprint Cup races due to a broken ankle he suffered in a Nationwide Series race at Talladega.

Ganassi's teams have been in trouble since Sterling Marlin's departure a couple seasons ago. David Stremme didn't work out last season, and after Homestead in 2007, long-time sponsor Coors Light bolted. Though Target and Texaco Havoline appear committed to the team -- which is good news for Juan Pablo Montoya and Reed Sorenson -- the fact that Ganassi had to shut down one of his teams and lay off about 70 people speaks to both the health of his organization and the economic struggles of the sport as a whole.

Franchitti's future remains up in the air, though Ganassi said he hopes to let the former open-wheel star run the remainder of the Nationwide Series season. It's a move that probably should've happened sooner -- in spite of Franchitti's obvious talent, the switch from open-wheel to stock cars is a tough one, and to throw a guy into Sprint Cup right off the bat is a questionable move.

I just hope Franchitti doesn't take a permanent career hit from this.

To Hit or Not to Hit

Examining Juan Pablo Montoya's intentional wrecking of Kyle Busch at the end of Sunday's race in New Hampshire under caution leaves me torn. As a fan, I loved the move, as I've been waiting for someone to dump Busch like that for some time now.

But as someone who wants to one day be an expert on the sport, examining things from the inside, I realize it's something we can't exactly cheer about. Sure, the fans can cheer, and mightily many of them did. To say Busch is unpopular would be the understatement of the season -- between his temperament, his cockiness and his incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond -- but that doesn't make wrecking him on purpose right.

Funny, but not right.

NASCAR penalized Montoya two laps for the move, giving him a 32nd-place finish. Busch finished 25th and kept his points lead over Jeff Burton, though Burton's 12th-place effort slimmed the margin a fair amount. NASCAR had to punish Montoya -- the move was obviously intentional, and Montoya even admitted as such in a TV interview -- it would've risked a PR nightmare if it hadn't.

Yet the fan in me absolutely loves the move, loves that Montoya didn't shy away from the truth, and that we might have a new feud on our hands. NASCAR needs rivalries like this, and if this carries over beyond Loudon, the fans are the ones who'll benefit.

It'll be interesting to see if Busch retaliates this weekend at Daytona -- or, perhaps more likely, next weekend at Chicagoland. He does have his points lead to think about, but Busch's youth and attitude might leave him unable to help himself.

It should be entertaining, I know that much.

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