Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Welcome Back, Bristol

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a rivalry on our hands.

After Carl Edwards used the bump-and-run on Kyle Busch to win the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, the fireworks really started. Edwards and Busch were already on a crash-course for each other, winning a combined 14 races this season and sitting 1-2 in the point standings.

But as Edwards ran his cool-down lap, Busch slammed into the side of him. Fine; sometimes that's how a guy congratulates the winner. But Busch slammed into Edwards again. So on the backstretch, once both cars were clear of the rest of the field filing onto pit road, Edwards turned down, rammed into the right rear of Busch's car, and sent the No. 18 spinning to the delight of the 160,000 fans on hand.

Busch showed his displeasure, tried to rattle Edwards' cage. Edwards didn't back down, giving better than he got.

Busch, who himself has used the front bumper a time or two in his career, said Edwards would apologize for the contact, like he always did. But a funny thing happened on the way to Victory Lane:

Edwards didn't apologize.

"It's one of those deals where I couldn't get by him, I couldn't get by him, and I just had to ask myself, 'Would he do that to me?' Edwards said. "And he has before, so that's the way it goes.

"Let's make it real clear -- I'm not apologizing for it. We're even."

Busch didn't see it that way, threatening to race Edwards this way throughout the Chase -- even though he was called to the NASCAR hauler after Edwards put the points leader in his place. NASCAR did not call Edwards to the hauler.

If I'm a fan, I'm hoping this isn't over. And considering Edwards said in Victory Lane that he hit Busch partly as payback for an incident in a Nationwide Series race in Richmond back in May, I don't see this party ending any time soon.

Which should be music to everyone's ears. A natural rivalry is exactly what NASCAR needs. The last couple -- Jeff Gordon-Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon-Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Kyle Busch -- have been media creations; the budding rivalry between Edwards and Busch seems genuine in its intensity.

And for Edwards' reputation as a happy-go-lucky, aw-shucks kind of guy, one thing is abundantly clear:

Carl Edwards doesn't forget, and he doesn't put up with anything from anyone. And that attitude might just win him the 2008 Sprint Cup championship.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dropping the Hammer

It took a day longer than expected, but NASCAR finally dolled out its punishments to Joe Gibbs Racing.

The No. 18 and No. 20 cars in the Nationwide Series were found to have magnets placed behind their accelerators after Saturday's race at Michigan International Speedway. While this wasn't a race violation, and both cars passed post-race inspection, the magnets were discovered when the cars were placed on the chassis dyno, which NASCAR used to monitor horsepower numbers.

With the magnets, the accelerators would not have gone all the way down, affecting the numbers NASCAR could compile. In essence, JGR officials hid some of their horsepower from NASCAR.

Horsepower among the Toyotas was already a contentious issue in the Nationwide Series, since before the race at O'Reilly Raceway Park, the Toyotas basically had 15 horsepower taken away. Toyota has won 15 of 25 races this season -- all but one coming from Joe Gibbs Racing.

The rule change was needless, essentially punishing Toyota -- and more specifically, JGR -- for excelling under the current rules package. Toyota worked its butt off to get the success it had, and rather than allowing Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge to catch up, NASCAR decided to take something away from Toyota.

That's not normally the way things work; years before, Chevrolet had a distinct advantage over Ford and Dodge in front end geometry. Rather than punish Chevy teams for their hard work, NASCAR merely gave Ford and Dodge an inch or two on their front noses in an effort to keep up.

I'm all for competitive balance, but taking something away from a team that excelled within the rules just seems ... petty.

Besides, if this was a Toyota thing, wouldn't all the other Toyota teams outside of JGR be running better?

But back to the punishments; drivers Tony Stewart and Joey Logano were docked 150 driver points, and car owner Joe Gibbs lost 150 owner points for each car. Seven JGR employees have been suspended indefinitely, including crew chiefs Dave Rogers and Jason Ratcliff.

Monetary fines were also levied, and everyone involved has been placed on probation for the remainder of the season.

The penalties are largely fair, and unprecedented in the Nationwide Series. Gibbs said in a statement that he would consider levying punishment beyond that which NASCAR handled, which leaves me to wonder who's going to wind up on the unemployment line before too much longer. If anyone gets fired, I don't see it happening immediately, lest it nullify NASCAR's punishment.

Hard to suspend someone who doesn't have a job.

My problem comes from the driver points. Why punish Stewart and Logano -- who aren't running full schedules -- for something they probably weren't aware of? I normally don't buy the "driver doesn't know" excuse, but considering this infraction had nothing to do with the race itself, I don't believe either Stewart of Logano knew of this -- and whoever did this probably wouldn't tell them, because the fewer people knew, the better.

In theory, anyway.

Gibbs said he would appeal the driver point penalties, based largely on that concept. He will accept the other penalties, and I think Gibbs is handling this situation the best possible way.

Though this rules infraction wasn't a case of actual cheating, it was more akin to obstruction of justice -- which one could argue was worse. NASCAR needed to obtain raw data for their own purposes, and JGR purposefully fed NASCAR false information -- likely in an attempt to hide horsepower it knew it wasn't supposed to have.

If I have to choose between cheating and feeding NASCAR false information, I'll take cheating every day of the week.

One last note ...

In the spirit of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Ryan McGee of wrote an interesting article about the prospect of auto racing in the Olympics. Check it out here -- fascinating stuff.

Could you imagine Jeff Gordon standing on the medal podium with a gold medal around his neck? I bet Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage could ....

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Michigan Thoughts

If Kyle Busch doesn't win the Sprint Cup championship this season, Carl Edwards will.

Edwards served notice Sunday with his fifth win of the season in the 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Raceway. If the Chase for the Cup were to start this weekend at Bristol, Edwards would have 40 bonus points (he lost the 10 from Las Vegas as part of his penalty) to Busch's 80. Getting more bonus points was important, but even more important was keeping those 10 away from Busch -- who finished second.

Edwards has shined mainly on the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals -- and five Chase tracks are 1.5 miles in length. The series also returns to Fontana in two weeks for a 500-miler at Auto Club Speedway -- where Edwards picked up his first win of the season in February.

A month ago, there were four legitimate contenders for the title: Busch, Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. After Michigan, though, I think it's down to Busch and Edwards. Junior isn't strong enough at the end of races lately to make any noise, and Johnson seems to stumble the moment his team finds any momentum (more on that later).

Simply put, Edwards and Busch are the class of the Sprint Cup field this season, and if neither of them hoists the trophy at Homestead, I'll be very surprised.

From Champs to Chumps

It was a bad day for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who both suffered damage from contact with Tony Stewart on lap 93 on Sunday. Johnson had a flat tire and had to pit, which put him down a lap, while Gordon lost a right front tire and finished 42nd.

Johnson isn't out of the woods yet -- he was down 68 points with five races to go last season and won four straight races to clinch his second Cup title -- but he lost more ground to Busch and Edwards, his two main title rivals. Gordon, meanwhile, dropped to 10th in points, where he is in the thick of the Chase bubble.

Could Gordon miss the Chase again? Could he also go winless for the first time since his rookie year in 1993? As absurd as it might sound, if he has another race like the one in Michigan, he very well could.

Reliable Ragan

Last year, David Ragan tore up more race cars than Paul Menard and Robby Gordon. At least, it seemed that way.

This year, Ragan is on the verge of the Chase, tied for 13th with Clint Bowyer after finishing third at Michigan. The 22-year-old has yet to win a race, but the way he's run this year -- only two finishes worse than 40th -- don't be surprised in that changes.

Also don't be surprised if Ragan winds up in the Chase, given all the troubles that seems to have befallen much of the bottom half of the top 12.

Will Ragan amount to much if he makes the Chase? I doubt it; then again, people said the same thing about Bowyer last year. He finished third in the standings after picking up his first career win.

Silly Season Notes

-Ryan Newman has been officially announced as the second driver for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. He'll drive the No. 4 car with sponsorship to be determined.

This just in: no one is surprised.

-If Casey Mears does wind up driving for Richard Childress next year, expect it to be in the Jack Daniels machine. General Mills, which will sponsor RCR's fourth car, doesn't want a former Kellogg's man piloting its car.

By the way, cereal and whiskey? RCR's kinda hitting both extremes of the demographic, aren't they?

-Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to announce on Aug. 25 that Joey Logano will take over the No. 20 car for Tony Stewart. While I still contend he isn't ready for a full-time Cup ride yet (the boy's only made eight Nationwide Series starts), the fact is -- who else is out there?

I'll understand if you're drawing a blank.

Speaking of JGR ...

Look for the team's two Nationwide cars -- the No. 18 and No. 20 -- to get hit hard this week after NASCAR discovered magnets under the accelerator pedals during chassis dyno. While the infraction wasn't a case of cheating during a race, it basically amounts to obstruction of justice. Whoever put those magnets there purposefully gave NASCAR false information.

With the magnets where they were, the accelerator pedals wouldn't go all the way to the floor, giving NASCAR inspectors false horsepower readings during the chassis dyno. After NASCAR took horsepower away from Toyota -- the manufacturer has won 15 of 25 races this season, 14 of which came from JGR -- this could amount to a huge deal.

Tony Stewart finished third in the No. 20, while Joey Logano finished seventh in the No. 18.

The entire JGR Nationwide operation will be hit hard, and both Joe and J.D. Gibbs promised that whoever was responsible would be dealt with accordingly. Can you can unemployment line?

Again, even though this isn't an instance of on-track cheating, the implications are massive. The team gave NASCAR false information on purpose, and that leaves me to wonder whether they actually took away the horsepower NASCAR mandated.

For the team's sake, I hope they did.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Musings After The Glen

Wonder Boy Not So Wonderful?

Perhaps more surprising than Tony Stewart's inability to overtake Kyle Busch during the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen on Sunday was the fact that Jeff Gordon finished 29th.

I'll say it again, because it bears repeating: Jeff Gordon finished 29th at Watkins Glen.

I'll understand if you have to read that last sentence a few times before it really sinks in. Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, has won four races at The Glen, tied for the most all-time with Stewart. Gordon has also yet to win in 2008, and many figured the upstate New York road course was just the place to get back in line.

Only it didn't happen. Gordon was just off all day long, while teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were factors until each encountered their own set of problems (Johnson a flat tire, Junior an idiot crew chief). Gordon has been off for much of the season, even though he sits sixth in the standings.

Yes, for Gordon, sixth in the standings is an off-year.

Is it the cars, crew chief Steve Letarte or Gordon himself? It's hard to say, and although Gordon appears set to make the Chase again, he's running like a shadow of his former self. Then again, if it weren't for the Chase, he'd be a six-time Cup champion, so I guess struggling is only relative.

But bear in mind: Gordon is in danger of going winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993.

McDowell = Cup driver? Maybe not ...

Michael McDowell made contact with David Gilliland late in Sunday's race, setting off a massive nine-car pile-up that caused a 43-minute red flag and sent Bobby Labonte to a local hospital. Now, McDowell has been parked for three races.

Mike Skinner will drive the No. 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing the next three weeks in what the team is calling an "evaluation period." This is the second big spill of the season for McDowell, who tumbled famously in qualifying at Texas back in March. McDowell also ran afoul of Jeff Burton at Martinsville, so it's been a tough year for the rookie.

While I'm tempted to joke about Skinner hoping into this ride -- he never won a Cup race and has spent the last couple years exiled in the Craftsman Truck Series -- the fact is Skinner worked well in this capacity once before. Remember early in the season when Team Red Bull parked A.J. Allmendinger and put Skinner in the ride?

Skinner did what was asked, and since Allmendinger returned to the car, the No. 84 Toyota's performance has improved -- even more so once the team hired Jimmy Elledge as crew chief. In fact, after Allmendinger's 11th-place finish at The Glen, the No. 84 is in the top 35 in owner points, guaranteeing a starting spot this weekend at Michigan.

So there is precedence for success in this role for Skinner. I'm just not sure McDowell has the ability to rebound the way Allmendinger did. Say what you want about Allmendinger, but he doesn't make a habit of tearing up his, or anyone else's, equipment.

Mears to Childress? has reported that sources close to the situation say Casey Mears is close to signing a deal to drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2009. Those same sources say an official announcement could come as early as this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

One possibility is that Clint Bowyer would move over to the No. 33 car, which will be sponsored by General Mills, while Mears takes over the Jack Daniels No. 07. Mears' current sponsor, Kellogg's, would probably have a lot to do with that potential move; General Mills is reportedly uncomfortable with the idea of sponsoring a driver who spent the last two years peddling Frosted Flakes.

What makes me wonder, though, is ... would Mears succeed with RCR? Nothing I've seen to this point in Mears' career suggests he would. Mears struggled at both Target Chip Ganassi and Hendrick Motorsports -- though in the interest of fairness, Mears did go through four different teams in four different seasons. Hard to succeed when you spend most of your time trying to build chemistry.

But the fact remains; there are those who feel that in firing Kyle Busch last year, Hendrick got rid of the wrong driver. Mears is one of the more likeable guys in the garage area, and he does have one career win (the 2007 Coca-Cola 600), but if Mears couldn't consistently succeed at Hendrick, what's to say he'll succeed at RCR?

Then again, I could be wrong. Who thought Busch would be this dominant in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wrong Call

Kyle Busch earning his eighth Sprint Cup win of the season Sunday at Watkins Glen is, ultimately, of little consequence; that tends to happen when winning becomes so commonplace, back-to-back finishes of 15th and 36th counts as a slump. The fact that Busch locked up the top seed once the Chase for the Cup starts in five races is also, at the end of the day, neither surprising nor particularly compelling.

What I prefer to focus on is the guy who finished 22nd: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior, who has never won a road course race at the Cup level, was strong on Sunday, starting second and taking the lead from Busch on lap 2. Junior led twice for 33 laps and had a car that at worst could've finished in the top five, but poor pit strategy relegated Junior to a 22nd-place finish, dropping him from second to fourth in the points.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. has taken some heat this season for being too conservative and possibly costing Junior a race or two. It got to the point where before Junior won the June race at Michigan on fuel mileage, some fans were calling for Eury's job.

Expect those calls to start up again after Eury kept Junior on the track for too long on Sunday, leaving him out when everyone else was pitting for fuel. A lap 64 caution bit Junior, and he was just one of two lead-lap cars to put under the yellow, because everyone else had already been down under green.

It was actually the second time in the race Junior waited a good two or three laps after everyone else to pit, but because the first run stayed under green, it didn't matter much. But Eury's decision to leave Junior on the race track as long as possible -- even as Junior was losing a second per lap to second-place Busch -- kept Junior from contending.

Would Junior have won without the pit miscue? Hard to say, but his chances of finishing in the top five were much better.

I realize the last time Junior and Eury split, in 2004, was a disaster. The two, as cousins, have a chemistry that's hard to come by in the Sprint Cup garage, but I can't help but wonder if owner Rick Hendrick might consider making a change before 2009 if things continue.

After all, Darian Grubb has shown on more than one occasion he can be a capable Sprint Cup crew chief. If I'm Eury, I might be looking over my shoulder a little bit.

Quick Shout-Out

A.J. Allmendinger deserves some credit for the way he's been running in recent weeks -- specifically, since Jimmy Elledge came on board as his crew chief. Since Elledge came on board at Chicago, Allmendinger has posted four straight top-20 finishes -- including an 11th-place run Sunday at Watkins Glen.

Allmendinger also posted a career-best 10th at the Brickyard two weeks ago. The recent run of success has catapulted the No. 84 Red Bull team to within the Top 35 in owner points -- which means Allmendinger is guaranteed a starting spot in next week's race in Michigan.

Though rumors persist Allmendinger might not return next season -- the ride could go to Scott Speed, who's progressing nicely through both ARCA and the Craftsman Truck Series -- the former Champ Car star might just be figuring out stock cars.

Which would make it a shame if Allmendinger found himself looking for a ride next season.