Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Three Down, Seven to Go: Kansas Musings

Following Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway, I just have one question: how different would the Chase look if Carl Edwards didn't smack the fence in the final corner and managed to win the race?

I don't mean the standings themselves -- Edwards would still be atop the standings with Johnson a very close second -- but the outlook heading into the final seven races. It would have been a nice bit of momentum for Edwards, and it would've also been one more race Jimmie Johnson didn't win.

Everyone knows the Chase is Johnson's time of year. He's never finished worse than fourth in the playoff, and has won the last two Sprint Cup titles. His win on Sunday put Johnson atop the points going into Talladega, and Johnson has shown more often than not that once he's on top, it's almost impossible to knock him off.

Edwards and Greg Biffle -- who finished third on Sunday -- will still contend, and this championship has all the signs of coming down to the wire in Homestead. But Johnson has the momentum, and if he becomes the only man other than Cale Yarborough to win three consecutive Cup championships, we can probably point to Kansas as why.

That said, let's not hold Edwards' banzai move against him. He wanted to win that race badly, and not just because of the points, either. Edwards wanted to win in front of what is the closest thing he'll have to a home crowd. He wanted the checkered flag, which in an era of points racers, is a refreshing sight.

If only more guys in the Sprint Cup Series would show such a passion for winning. An already exciting series might be even more entertaining.

Down and Out -- And This Time, We Mean It

Remember last week, when I said counting out Kyle Busch, even after back-to-back horrible finishes was foolish, and that he still had a good shot of getting on a roll and winning the title?

Yeah, scratch that. He's done.

That 28th-place egg at Kansas leaves Busch 311 points out of the lead, in 12th place in the standings. More importantly, it shows that whatever the team had before the Chase started is gone.

For the third straight week, Busch's car had a mechanical issue, a fuel pickup malfunction that caused the engine to sputter. Even when the crew fixed that, the car didn't have the speed we've grown accustomed to seeing this season. While I find it hard to believe the No. 18 team has suddenly lost whatever it had earlier in the year, when it won eight races, the fact is other teams -- the No. 99, No. 48 and No. 16, specifically -- have caught up.

Busch might win another race or two in the final seven, but the best driver with the best crew and the best car for much of the season won't be hoisting the Sprint Cup Series trophy in Homestead. Some will love that, but others will point to this as the flaw of the Chase. But the fact is, even without the Chase, Busch would no longer be the points leader, and Edwards, Johnson and Biffle would still have all the momentum.

Seeing Red ... Bull

It was bad enough Red Bull Racing told A.J. Allmendinger he wouldn't be returning to the No. 84 car after the end of this season, but Tuesday's announcement he wouldn't be in that car anymore this year -- after a career-best ninth-place finish at Kansas -- seems disrespectful on so many levels.

Credit to Allmendinger for not phoning it in and driving like he meant it on Sunday -- that will go a long way in convincing another car owner to take a chance on him in the future. I realize Red Bull Racing wants to get Scott Speed to the Sprint Cup level as soon as possible, but at the expense of Allmendinger, who since being benched for Mike Skinner at the beginning of the season has qualified for every race and managed six top-15 finishes in the last nine races?

RBR never gave Allmendinger a shot -- adding an unproven open-wheel driver to a new team in the Sprint Cup Series will never lead to instant success, but Allmendinger was starting to get a handle on the whole stock car thing. Allmendinger deserves to be in the Cup Series full-time, and don't be surprised if in the next couple years he finds Victory Lane.

He just got a raw deal over at RBR. Not to take anything away from Speed, but Allmendinger deserves to be in that ride.

Taking His Sponsor and Going Home

According to the Associated Press on Tuesday, Paul Menard will leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at the end of the season to drive for Robert Yates Racing. Menard will bring his sponsor, the home improvement outlet carrying the family name, with him.

While that could spell good news for Yates, that possibly leaves DEI in a bit of a pickle. The team did manage to sign Martin Truex Jr. for next season, but he's the only driver on the team now with guaranteed sponsorship for next season. Sure, Aric Almirola will be in the No. 8, but rumors persist the Army won't be with him. And considering how Regan Smith has used a patchwork of sponsors this season, things look bleak.

It does provide an interesting option for Allmendinger (see above), but he's probably more likely to wind up at either Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 41 or at Petty Enterprises. If I had to guess right now, I'd say Allmendinger's heading for Ganassi.

Three drivers, four cars, one sponsor. Was this really what the late Dale Earnhardt had in mind when he founded this company? Probably not -- then again, he probably didn't envision his own son driving for Hendrick Motorsports, either.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Two Down, Eight to Go: Dover Musings

Now can we consider Greg Biffle a title threat?

If his win in the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire wasn't convincing enough, how about a follow-up performance on Sunday at Dover? Battling his Roush-Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth (who can't seem to catch a break this season), Biffle went on to his second win in as many weeks, and now sits 10 points behind points leader Edwards.

Oh, and have I mentioned Biffle won at Kansas last year, which is where the Sprint Cup boys set up shop this weekend? A three-race winning streak to open the Chase is not out of the question, but it will be necessary as Edwards and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson continue logging top-5 finishes (Edwards finished third and Johnson came in fifth at Dover).

I'm still not quite ready to count out Kyle Busch just yet (more on him in a bit), but Biffle's surge could not have been better timed. Biffle's been strong at times throughout the year -- he had the car to beat at Darlington before loose lugs and bad pit stops derailed him, and he led at Sonoma before deciding to dirt-track it -- but to come out of the gate with back-to-back wins is impressive and unprecedented.

Seriously, before Biffle, no one has ever won back-to-back races to start the Chase. It's also the first time since 2000 that Biffle has logged back-to-back wins. What'd he do that year? Just won the Craftsman Truck Series title, that's all ...


Kyle Busch's 43rd-place finish at Dover because of a motor problem left many fans ecstatic -- and Busch frustrated as his 80-point cushion heading into the Chase officially turned into a 210-point defecit. Busch sits 12th in the standings, last among Chase drivers.

To hear Busch talk, he's done. He said he started the Chase the same way in 2006 and finished last in what was then a 10-car field. And according to logic, he's right.

Thing is, logic and Busch don't go together. Neither do logic and the Chase, for that matter. For inspiration that his Chase isn't yet over, Busch need look no further than former teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson left Talladega in 2006 156 points out of the lead before rallying and pulling off the title.

Johnson was also down over 200 points after the Chase's midway point in 2004, but used an insane charge in the season's final five races to finish second, eight points behind champion Kurt Busch. So it's not impossible for Busch to go on a hot streak and drive himself back into this thing.

Then again, attitude has a lot to do with that. Busch is already waving the white flag, which can't make the No. 18 crew all that happy with him. They worked their butts off in Dover to get the car ready to drive again, but Busch refused to go out, make laps and try to salvage even three more points.

If that sounds familiar, it should; Busch refused to re-enter the spring race at Texas last season after a wreck. The car went back out, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel. Two months later, Busch was out of a ride and Junior was shaking hands with new boss Rick Hendrick for the cameras.

Not saying Busch will get fired again, but ... it's starting to become a pattern, isn't it?

Bullish Move

Gotta feel bad for A.J. Allmendinger, who this week found out he won't be back in the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota next season. Allmendinger, who came over last year from the now-defunct Champ Car Series, is in the Top 35 in owner points and has solidly progressed throughout the season. The addition of crew chief Jimmy Elledge has done wonders for that team, and Allmendinger can even claim a career-best 10th-place finish at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

But now, he's looking for a ride. Rumors have Allmendinger talking with Chip Ganassi Racing and Petty Enterprises about rides for next season, but the fact that Team Red Bull waited until late September to make the move leaves Allmendinger with few options. Allmendinger showed this year he has a lot of potential as a Sprint Cup driver, and I hope someone gives him that chance.

Potential Disaster

Now that Robby Gordon is no longer looking to merge with Gillete-Evernham Motorsports -- lawsuits are funny like that -- he's rumored to still be in the market for a merger. The potential suitor? According to multiple sources, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Yes, that DEI.

While it's hard to imagine Gordon's team being much worse than it already is -- we are, after all, talking about the Gordon who can't drive a stock car -- merging with a team like DEI just might do it. Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola aside, that team is largely in flux. Regan Smith and Paul Menard's futures are still up in the air, and sponsorship is also an issue.

Then again, when as the last time Robby Gordon did something smart?

Debut Time

Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski will attempt to qualify for two Sprint Cup races this season with Hendrick Motorsports, at Lowe's Motor Speedway and at Texas. Keselowski, third in the Nationwide Series point standings, has two wins this season and many feel once Mark Martin's completed his 2009 ride, the No. 5 could be Keselowski's.

Keselowski drives the No. 88 Navy Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, a Nationwide Series team co-owned by Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At 24, Keselowski has proven to be one of the up-and-coming young talents of NASCAR. He doesn't have near the hype or expectations of, say, Joey Logano, but if Hendrick feels Keselowski is the real deal, then I think Keselowski is someone worth watching.

Roger Penske reportedly offered Keselowski the No. 12 ride once Ryan Newman announced he was leaving, but Keselowski turned it down, mostly because of the potential future he has at Hendrick Motorsports. Keselowski's also smart, having admitted he's not ready for a full-time Cup ride and committing himself to running the full 2009 Nationwide Series schedule.

In a world where everyone wants to get to the Sprint Cup Series as soon as possible, such self-awareness and maturity is refreshing. Brad Keselowski is a Sprint Cup star in the making.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One Down, Nine to Go: New Hampshire Musings

Raise your hand if you had Greg Biffle in your New Hampshire office pool.


That's what I thought. You all probably took one of the Big Three: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards or Jimmie Johnson. If you went with Edwards or Johnson, you still had a good day -- Johnson finished second, while Edwards came in third -- but those of you who picked Busch ... sorry, but those things happen sometimes.

But more on Busch later. Biffle snapped a 33-race winless streak, dating back to Kansas last season. He admitted to holding back toward the end of the race, conserving fuel and waiting until the last possible moment to make his move on Johnson ... which he did with 12 laps remaining. Johnson couldn't get back around, and suddenly Biffle vaulted to third in the standings.

With Dover and Kansas the next two tracks on the schedule -- two places Biffle runs quite well at -- he could further solidify himself as a title contender. I'm not gonna sit here and say Biffle will win the Cup, but another couple runs like Sunday's and he'll be right in the thick of things.

And chew on this little nugget: if Biffle does win the Sprint Cup, he'll become the first driver ever to win championships in the Craftsman Truck, Busch/Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series.

Down, By No Means Out

I would love to write off Kyle Busch after his 34th-place disaster Sunday, but I just can't. It was only the first of 10 races, and if Busch gets on a tear again -- which he can -- he'll be right back in the mix.

I'm sure it's frustrating to see nearly all of that 80-point bonus he earned in the regular season evaporate, just as I'm sure he hated falling from first to eighth in the standings because of a loose sway bar. But Busch would do well to keep this fact in mind: Jimmie Johnson finished 39th at New Hampshire in 2006 and still came back to win the title.

Busch can still win the championship if he avoids another race like Sunday's. There's also the very real possibility that some of the other Chase drivers will have a bad race or two down the road as well -- Matt Kenseth already did. Talladega is also three weeks away, which could throw a monkey wrench into things for, literally, anyone.

Then there's Martinsville the week after that.

Busch is still a contender, and anyone who's counting him out after one bad race on a track that's traditionally not his best is either short-sighted or afflicted with a serious case of wishful thinking. Now, if Busch has another day like Sunday, he'll be done, but let's not throw dirt on the boy yet.

Tempting as it might be.

Radio Whisperer

Kudos to car owner Rick Hendrick for stepping in over the past couple races and trying to act as a mediator between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Earnhardt's race on Sunday was typical of his season: strong car early, leading a lot of laps, then fading once the race passed the halfway point.

The culprit this week? A bad set of Goodyears, and Junior let Eury know it with an expletive-laden tirade before Hendrick stepped in to calm him down. Junior rebounded to finish fifth, his second straight top-5, thanks in large part to a pit crew that gained him spots on pit road all day.

Let's be honest for a minute -- if you listen to drivers' scanners while at the race, you'll notice Junior is far from the only guy to cuss out his car and crew. In fact, I would argue every driver does it. But Hendrick knows a thing or two about winning championships -- he has seven in the Cup Series alone -- and if he felt Junior's temper was getting in the way of winning, he was right to step in and say something.

Hendrick has done this for the past three races, and Junior's results have improved. He finished a solid 11th at California, fourth at Richmond and fifth this past weekend. Junior came to Hendrick Motorsports to contend for a championship, and while the season has been a success so far -- the team met its goals of winning a race and making the Chase -- Junior needs to focus and keep a certain level of calm if he's going to truly contend.

And Rick Hendrick knows that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2008 Chase Preview

With the 2008 Chase for the Cup starting this weekend at New Hampshire, it would appear a preview of the 10-race "playoff" was in order. These predictions are by no means expert, and there's a fairly good chance I'll be wrong in most of my thinking, but here they are nonetheless.

We'll start with the drivers making up the 12-man field.

1. Kyle Busch (5,080 points, 8 wins)
NASCAR's most despised driver has won a series-high eight wins so far this season, earning him the top seed in the Chase in spite of a 15th-place finish at Richmond. It's entirely possible for Busch to win another race or two once the playoffs start, and he is one of the three drivers with a realistic shot at the Cup. The only things working against Busch? His overly aggressive style, the fact that a few drivers still owe him payback and a little thing called Jimmie Johnson.

2. Carl Edwards (5,050 points, 6 wins -- 10 bonus points from Las Vegas taken away)
Perhaps more important than Edwards' six wins in the regular season is the fact that he refused to back down to Busch after he used the bump-and-run to win at Bristol. When he turned Busch after the checkered flag, Edwards served notice that not only could he keep up with Busch on the track, but that he wouldn't let him rough him up, either. The one thing going against Edwards, and this is true of Busch as well, is his lack of championship experience. Edwards won the 2007 Nationwide Series title, but that was a runaway -- and that series doesn't have the Chase.

3. Jimmie Johnson (5,040 points, 4 wins)
The two-time defending Cup champion won back-to-back races heading into the Chase for the second straight year, setting himself nicely to become the first man to win three straight titles since Cale Yarborough. Johnson is traditionally a driver who heats up in the Chase -- as evidenced by his winning the last four races of the 2007 season. Johnson has that championship experience and pedigree that both Busch and Edwards lack. For that reason alone, make Johnson the favorite.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5,010 points, 1 win)
In June, Earnhardt would've easily been considered one of the few guys with a shot at challenging Busch, thanks to his consistency. But since winning the June race at Michigan, Earnhardt has just two top-10 finishes: eighth at Daytona in July and fourth this past Sunday at Richmond. Earnhardt has led laps, but inconsistency late in races and with his crew chief have left Earnhardt searching for answers while Busch, Edwards and Johnson take checkered flags left and right. Earnhardt might very well win a race or two in the Chase, but he's not a title threat.

5. Clint Bowyer (5,010 points, 1 win)
Last year's Chase darling -- he finished third behind Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- Bowyer snuck in this year after a rough race at Richmond. Bowyer won the May race in Richmond, the beneficiary of Busch and Earnhardt's late-race tangle. But since then, Bowyer has had neither the speed nor the consistency, which will carry over into the Chase. Bowyer does run well at a few of the remaining tracks -- like New Hampshire and Charlotte -- but Bowyer can't keep up with the Big Three, especially since his attention is divided between the Chase and the Nationwide Series title.

6. Denny Hamlin (5,010 points, 1 win)
After saying his team didn't deserve to be in the Chase after blowing a motor at Michigan, Hamlin enters the Chase with three straight third-place finishes. He hasn't found the speed teammate Busch has this season, but Hamlin won the Martinsville race in the spring, which will make him a threat when the series returns in October. Hamlin also performs well at New Hampshire, Phoenix and select 1.5-milers, and he's got enough momentum to possibly make a run at the title.

7. Jeff Burton (5,010 points, 1 win)
Before the July race at Daytona, Burton hadn't finished worse than 15th all season. That consistency hasn't been easy to find since, though Burton is in the Chase and has one win to his name: Bristol in March. But Richard Childress Racing as a whole doesn't have the speed to keep up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. It's impressive that RCR has all three cars in the Chase field, but I don't see Burton being a title threat. He could be a threat at Dover and a few other tracks, but Burton won't be a problem for Busch, Edwards and Johnson.

8. Tony Stewart (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Most years, I would consider Stewart a serious threat for the title. But even though Stewart could easily have three or four wins this season, don't look for him to make any noise in the Chase. He could win his first race of the season, but with his attention slowly turning to Stewart Haas Racing in 2009, tensions are starting to boil over between Stewart and his team. Their post-race bickering in Richmond isn't just a bit of frustration from Stewart finishing second to Johnson, it's indemic of bitterness about Stewart's decision to leave -- and it will keep him from winning the Chase.

9. Greg Biffle (5,000 points, 0 wins)
It's kind of hard to believe Biffle hasn't won yet this season, as well as he's run at times. Then again, Edwards aside, Roush Fenway Racing as a whole hasn't quite been at the same level as the better teams in the garage. For that reason alone, Biffle won't be much of a threat; he might win a race at some point in the final 10 races, but I really don't see the No. 16 team being a serious threat to Busch, Edwards or Johnson. At best, Biffle can make a push to put himself in position to make a run at the title in 2009.

10. Jeff Gordon (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Are we serious? Has Gordon really gone all season without winning a race? You have to be kidding, right? Gordon and his No. 24 crew have struggled throughout much of the season, trying to find a handle on the new car. By their own admission, the team fell behind because of their pursuit for the title last season, when Gordon finished second to Johnson, and there have been races where Gordon hasn't even been competitive, and for that reason alone, Gordon won't make a push for Championship #5. In fact, he could very well go winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993.

11. Kevin Harvick (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Harvick hasn't seen Victory Lane since he edged past Mark Martin to win the Daytona 500, and there have been times this season in which the No. 29 team hasn't even looked competitive. But since getting caught up in a wreck with Kurt Busch at Indianapolis, Harvick has run better, and even led laps at Richmond. Harvick isn't fast enough this year to win any races, though, let alone challenge Busch, Edwards and Johnson for the title. Like his Richard Childress teammates, Harvick won't be a threat.

12. Matt Kenseth (5,000 points, 0 wins)
That Kenseth is without a win isn't that surprising -- he won the 2003 title with just one victory -- his lack of consistency has been. After Phoenix, Kenseth was 22nd in points, and while he's worked to establish a rapport with new crew chief Chip Bolin, teammate Carl Edwards has found something no one else at Roush Fenway has. Kenseth will go winless this season, and we're probably likely to forget he's even in the Chase.

2008 Sprint Cup Champion: Jimmie Johnson

2008 Chase Race Winners

Sylvania 300, New Hampshire: Denny Hamlin
Camping World RV 400, Dover: Kyle Busch
Camping World RV 400, Kansas: Carl Edwards
AMP Energy 500, Talladega: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bank of America 500, Lowe's Motor Speedway: Jimmie Johnson
TUMS QuikPak 500, Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson
Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta: Carl Edwards
Dickies 500, Texas: Jimmie Johnson
O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, Phoenix: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ford 400, Homestead: Jimmie Johnson

Monday, September 8, 2008

Doubleheader Sunday

Revenge: The drivers might not always get revenge on each other, but the karmic nature of racing has a way of righting previous wrongs regardless. Everyone remembers what happened at Richmond back in May, when Kyle Busch spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the two battled for the lead late. The roles were reversed Sunday in the Chevy Rock n' Roll 400, though Earnhardt didn't do it on purpose. Busch, who was in lead, dove low in Turn 1, even though Earnhardt was already along his left rear fender. Earnhardt flat-spotted the left front tire, contact was made, and Busch backed into the fence.

Imagine over 120,000 people screaming in jubilation, loving the racing gods for their sense of justice. Earnhardt didn't intentionally dump Busch -- he said if he were to intentionally wreck someone, he'd make sure that person couldn't come back and get him later that race -- but there has to be some sense of karma in racing that allowed that situation to play out.

So now Earnhardt and Carl Edwards are both even -- well, in their minds. Whether Busch, who's on probation for his actions at Bristol, feels that way is another story.

Crap: Tony Stewart finished second for the fourth time this season, unable to overtake Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps for his first win of the season. After the race, a frustrated Stewart told his crew, "Great job, guys. You lost us another one today."

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli immediately shot back with, "We win as a team and we lose as a team. Enough of this crap!"

Stewart shot back with, "Yeah, well -- I'm the one who got us back up here."

You think as the 2008 season draws to a close, Stewart and Zipadelli are no longer concerned with playing nice? It seems to me there's some animosity over Stewart's decision to leave at the end of the season to co-own Stewart Haas Racing. Everyone said all the right things before Sunday, but it would seem no one really cares anymore.

If this trend continues, look for Stewart to suffer the first winless season of his Cup career.

Favorites: Some would consider Kyle Busch, who won eight times so far this season and rebounded to finish 15th on Sunday, the title favorite once the Chase starts this weekend at New Hampshire. Others point to Edwards, who has won six times and isn't nearly as temperamental as Busch.

But don't forget Jimmie Johnson. You know, the guy who's won four races this year and just so happens to be the two-time defending Cup champion.

Johnson has won the last two races, and has repeatedly shown that the Chase is his time of year. Johnson won the last four races of the season last year to take the title, and since the Chase debuted in 2004, Johnson has never finished worse than second in the points.

Sure, he's 40 points behind Busch right now, but with drivers refusing to back down from Busch and Johnson's tendency to get hot at the end of the calendar, don't be surprised if Johnson puts himself in the same sentence as Cale Yarborough -- the only man to ever win three straight Cup championships.

Not Yet: David Ragan might've missed out on the Chase by virtue of his struggles Sunday at Richmond, but don't discount how much this young man has progressed in one year. Ragan was a liability last season, tearing up equipment more often than finishing, while this season saw the Cup sophomore land four top-5s and nine top-10s.

Ragan is also fifth in the Nationwide Series standings.

I don't think Ragan will win his first race until 2009, but the Georgia native has made significant strides. Whereas last year he had other drivers in the garage criticizing him, Ragan has heard nary a peep in 2008, because he's finishing races and learning every week.

I think Ragan makes the Chase next season, I really do.

Double Dip: The doubleheader on Sunday that was forced by Tropical Storm Hanna worked out better than anyone could've imagined. The Cup race went off in just over three and a half hours, with plenty of time for fans who weren't attending the Nationwide race to leave the grounds.

Those who stayed were treated to a solid night race, where Carl Edwards overtook a dominant Clint Bowyer in the late stages. More importantly, though, those fans weren't burdened with horrible traffic afterward.

I doubt tracks would ever do something like this without the intervention of Mother Nature, but why not? I think doubleheaders like this have the potential to be really popular. Run the Cup race during the day (for logistical and traffic purposes), then follow it with either the Nationwide Series race or one from the Craftsman Truck Series.

If fans know of both races ahead of time, and are going to be at the Cup race anyway, they may buy a ticket for the other race and stick around. NASCAR races are all-day affairs anyway, between the souvenir sales and everything else that goes along with it, and doubleheaders like the one at Richmond on Sunday can only help that.

I enjoyed it, at least.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Only Move

Dario Franchitti's foray into NASCAR was short-lived, and fortunately, the 2007 Indianapolis 500 champion saw the writing on the wall.

It was reported on Tuesday that Franchitti would remain with car owner Chip Ganassi, but return to the IndyCar Series. Franchitti, the 2007 IRL champion, will pilot the No. 10 machine, replacing Dan Wheldon. Wheldon's options are limited, though reports have him replacing Vitor Meira at Panther Racing next season.

Wheldon might be one of the best drivers in the IRL, but Meira isn't exactly chopped liver. He has eight second-place finishes this year, including twice in the Indy 500, so I'm not sure what the thinking would be in replacing a young guy with that much potential.

Then again, Wheldon has an Indy 500 and an IRL title on his resume.

But back to Franchitti; if Juan Pablo Montoya was the welcome mat for open-wheel veterans to give NASCAR a shot, Franchitti should be the cautionary tale. While Ganassi brought him over thinking sponsorship would latch on (after all, who wouldn't want to sponsor a likeable Indy 500 champion with a movie star wife?), it didn't, and after the No. 40 made just 10 races this season, Ganassi pulled the plug on the team.

The same No. 40 team that nearly won a Cup title with Sterling Marlin in 2001 and gave Jamie McMurray his first Cup win in 2002.

Franchitti's best Sprint Cup finish? A 22nd-place effort at Martinsville. He showed a little more promise in the Nationwide Series, with two top-10s and a top-5 finish. But sixth-place at Las Vegas and fifth at Watkins Glen couldn't keep the struggles at bay, as Franchitti fractured his ankle in a Nationwide Series crash at Talladega.

All in all, NASCAR just wasn't in the cards for Franchitti anymore.

There had been discussions of Franchitti taking over the No. 41 Sprint Cup ride, which will be vacated at the end of the season when Reed Sorenson leaves for Gillett Evernham Motorsports. But the 2009 IndyCar schedule, which promises more road and street courses, and Ganassi's own IRL success, made the decision easy for Franchitti.

To say Ganassi's NASCAR program is struggling would be like saying Chad Johnson is a selfish player. Between the shuttering of the No. 40, Sorenson leaving and Texaco-Havoline leaving the no. 42 at the end of the season, things aren't nearly as fruitful in the stock car world as they are on the open-wheel side for Ganassi.

And I applaud Franchitti for seeing that. I like Franchitti, and have no doubts with regards to his ability to drive a race car, but stock cars just weren't working out for him. Stock cars aren't as easy as some might think.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don't Look Now

Just when you thought it was safe -- two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson showed he isn't to be ignored in the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Because of the three main title contenders this year -- Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch -- Johnson is the only one with championship hardware.

Sure, Edwards has a Nationwide Series title, but that's nothing compared to the Sprint Cup.

Johnson won the Pepsi 500 in Fontana in dominating fashion Sunday night, while Edwards and Busch had to settle for fifth and sixth place, respectively. With all the talk of late about the budding rivalry between Edwards and Busch, Johnson reminded them, and everyone else, that he's won the last two titles for a reason.

And anyone who thinks Johnson can't join Cale Yarborough as the only Cup drivers to win three consecutive titles is a right fool. Don't forget, last year Johnson wasn't the most dominant driver, but he caught fire in the Chase, won the last four races of the season and hoisted his second Cup trophy at Homestead.

What's to keep him from doing something like that again here in 2008?

I'd like to think Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are also players in this, given their pedigree, but neither has won a race so far this season. More importantly, Gordon has been too inconsistent -- and if his night goes bad enough at Richmond this Saturday, there's a chance he could miss the Chase altogether.

And you Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans (okay, us Junior fans) -- content yourself with the fact that he made the Chase this year and won a race, because NASCAR's most popular driver isn't winning the title this year. He could still finish the season top-five in points, which is a monumental improvement over last season, but the early-season success has been replaced by crew and driver mistakes. Junior's saving grace is the rest of schedule is mostly run on tracks he performed well at early in the year. Another win could be in the cards, but it looks like 2009 might be a more realistic title hope.

Busch and Edwards might have won 14 of the 25 races run so far this season, whereas Johnson only has three, but we're coming up on the time of year in which Johnson thrives. And any time he's got Chad Knaus on the pit box, I'm not counting him out.

Anyone who does needs to have their head examined. Right along with anyone who really thought Tennessee was the No. 18 team in the country.