Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Five Down, Five to Go: Charlotte Musings

Is there anyone who can honestly say they’re unhappy whenever Jeff Burton wins a race? Easily one of the most respected drivers in the Sprint Cup garage area, Burton took the checkered flag Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The win, coupled with troubles for Carl Edwards (more on him in a bit), vaulted Burton to second in the standings, 69 points behind Jimmie Johnson.

Can Burton now be considered a serious title threat, much like Greg Biffle was after winning back-to-back races to start the Chase? It’s possible; Burton runs well at Martinsville (the stop this week), as well as upcoming 1.5-milers Texas and Atlanta. Burton’s only problem is Johnson himself, who not only has the same consistency, but this is the two-time champion’s time of year.

Johnson always seems to run well once the series leaves Richmond in September. He’s quickly turning into NASCAR’s version of Reggie Jackson. The Yankee legend is known as Mr. October; we might have to start calling Johnson Mr. Chase.

But should Johnson stumble in the final five races, Burton seems best positioned to take advantage given the remaining schedule. Biffle and Edwards will be strong on the 1.5-mile tracks, as well as Phoenix, but both Roush-Fenway drivers are average at best on the Virginia short track in Martinsville. Barring a career performance from either this weekend, the trophy will come down to Johnson and Burton.

If that’s the case, the analyst in me says Johnson – for obvious reasons. But the face says Burton. I mentioned earlier how Burton is so respected. For many fans, Burton is their second favorite driver; i.e., “If my favorite driver can’t win, I’d really like to see Jeff Burton win.”

Fair? Perhaps not, but it beats having ¾ of the crowd booing you every week. Right, Kyle Busch?

From Bad to Worse

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Carl Edwards last week, the Bank of America 500 happened. Ignition problems doomed Edwards to a 33rd-place finish and a tumble from second to fourth in the standings, 168 points behind Jimmie Johnson.

Edwards’ bad week actually started at Talladega, when a bump draft of teammate Greg Biffle triggered a 12-car pileup that ate up six Chase contenders. Then Kevin Harvick voiced his displeasure pointedly on ESPN’s live broadcast, calling Edwards a “pansy.”

Edwards and Harvick then reportedly had words in the Nationwide Series garage on Friday, which resulted in Edwards’ hand around Harvick’s neck and Harvick shoving Edwards so hard that Edwards’ backside left a dent in the hood of Harvick’s No. 33 Nationwide car.

I swear, there’s a joke in there somewhere.

Call it karma if you wish – some believe Edwards was the guilty party in the brawl, even though there’s little visual evidence – but if Edwards loses the championship this year, he can probably point to the seven days between Talladega and Charlotte to find the culprit. Edwards is a fine talent and the sort of personality that NASCAR needs, but he apparently needs to learn how to lose a title before he can win one.

Make no mistake, though; he will win one. At least.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Raw Deal

Am I the only one who thinks Patrick Carpentier got a raw deal?

The rookie Sprint Cup driver -- who before switching to stock cars was an open-wheel champion -- was released unceremoniously by Gillett Evernham Motorsports on Tuesday. Despite missing this past weekend's AMP Energy 500 at Talladega, Carpentier had shown signs of progress as the season progressed, often managing to qualify on time because of the No. 10's standing outside the Top 35 in owner points.

After qualifying at Talladega on Friday, Carpentier apparently had words with crew chief/team director Mike Shiplett, who allegedly blamed Carpentier for not making the race. Carpentier, who won the pole for the June Cup race at New Hampshire, shot back by saying he took cars Shiplett said weren't fast enough at Dover and Atlanta and made both races.

After running in the No. 00 for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend at Charlotte, A.J.Alllmendinger will run the No. 10 for the rest of the season. Carpentier's plans for 2009 are unknown, but I hope he doesn't return to open-wheel racing the way Dario Fanchitti did. Carpentier obviously loves and has a passion for stock car racing, and I think he has a chance to flourish under the right circumstances.

The reason open-wheel drivers struggle in NASCAR isn't a question of talent -- all of them that made the chance, Allmendinger aside, have won championships in other series around the world -- but experience. Open-wheel cars are night and day from stock cars, in terms of weight and handling and engine placement and all those other technical aspects. To expect someone to adapt almost immediately is insane.

Just because Tony Stewart made the switch with relative ease doesn't mean everyone else can. The open-wheel veterans need seat time, whether it's in the Cup, Truck or Nationwide Series. Hell, run some ARCA races if you have to. The open-wheel drivers also are, by and large, on teams that are struggling at the Cup level, which can't help matters.

Here's hoping Carpentier finds his way in NASCAR next season. His talent and personality would be great for the sport.

Pay Your Taxes

Memo to Helio Castroneves: you have to pay your taxes here in the United States. Washington gets kind of upset if you don't -- just ask Willie Nelson.

Some in the media -- okay, the guys of PTI -- expressed shock at how little coverage this has received. They point to Castroneves being one of the more recognizable names in the IndyCar Series, as well as the fact that he won the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. While that may be true, the simple fact remains: he's an IRL driver, so his star power only reaches but so far.

Now, if this were an NFL or NBA player -- or even a high-profile NASCAR driver -- this would get a lot more attention. Think about it: say you flip on ESPN and see Jeff Gordon under investigation for tax fraud. That's a bigger deal, no? What about if the IRS started pounding on Ray Lewis' door?

Hell, Sidney Crosby would probably create more buzz over something like this.

Not only that, but compared to shootings, robbery and any number of other crimes (like getting all rebellion in the scrip club), tax fraud just isn't all that ... sexy. Sure, Castroneves forgot to pay the federal government, but he didn't kill anyone in doing so (we think).

Still, the PR hit IndyCar will take from this can't be good. That's a sport on the fringe of the national consciousness as it is -- it needs all the good pub it can get.


Hey, I just went an entire post without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr. That's an accomplishment worth celebra -- oh, wait ...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Four Down, Six to Go: Talladega Musings

Memo to Regan Smith: a rule is a rule, so shut your mouth and get over it.

The finish at Talladega on Sunday, while exciting as usual, wasn’t without controversy, as Smith ducked below the yellow line to pass Tony Stewart coming to the checkered flag and take what he thought was his first career win. Only problem was, Talladega has the “out of bounds” rule – no diving below the yellow line on the bottom of the race track to advance your position.

Both Talladega and Daytona – the only two tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit that run horsepower-robbing restrictor plates – have this rule, and it’s discussed ad nauseum every time the series visits either track.

Stewart bellowed after the checkered flag Smith passed him below the line; NASCAR officials agreed, and gave the victory to Stewart, who crossed the finish line second. Smith, as penalty for the move, finished 18th, the last car on the lead lap. Feeling he’d been robbed, a teary-eyed Smith told NASCAR officials he’d been forced below the line – NASCAR rules state a pass under the yellow line is legal if the driver who does the passing was forced down there.

No dice.

Looking at the replay, Stewart obviously ducked low on Smith in the tri-oval. He was blocking his position, which is what the leader at Talladega always does on the last lap. It’s the nature of plate racing. Did Stewart force Smith below the line? Possibly; you could argue he did. But being forced below the yellow line is so hard to quantify; it’s a judgment call. Only two people know for sure: Stewart and Smith. And I guarantee you they disagree.

NASCAR made the best call it could with the information it had. There had been some rumblings that the yellow line rule went out the window once the checkered flag was in sight – a SPEED TV commentator said so during the Truck Series race on Saturday, and a NASCAR spokesman said the same after the Feb. 2007 Truck Series race at Daytona.

I’ll leave it to The Virginian-Pilot NASCAR writer Dustin Long – a veteran of covering motorsports, to explain what exactly is said in the drivers’ meeting in his blog.

And while taking the win away from Smith could affect his future with the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. – that No. 01 team needs a sponsor to keep running – the fact remains that he broke a rule and as such, didn’t deserve to win the race.

And considering all the bad luck Stewart’s had this year, doesn’t it seem fitting for a break to finally go his way?

Talladega Wild Card

Just how much can Talladega affect the Chase standings? When Carl Edwards bumped Greg Biffle in Turn 3 with 15 laps to go Sunday, he triggered The Big One – and took out seven of the 12 Chase drivers in the process.

Jeff Gordon found himself a victim of David Reutimann’s tire problem earlier in the day. Denny Hamlin, another Chase driver, smacked the wall while leading earlier in the day, when his right front tire exploded in Turn 2. More on that later.

So nine of the 12 drivers eligible for the Sprint Cup title had troubles Sunday. Jimmie Johnson didn’t, finishing ninth and opening up a 72-point lead over Edwards. Among those involved in the big crash: Edwards, Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

No wonder everyone calls this race a wild card in the Chase. Martinsville, the Virginia short track the series will visit in two weeks, is also considered a wild card, given the unpredictable nature of short track racing, but in terms of shaking up the standings and turning everything on its head, nothing beats a good restrictor-plate race.

The tight packs, the constant three- and four-wide racing drives fans and television executives wild, and any sneeze could send as many as 25 cars to the hauler and the scrap heap. Everyone loves it but the vast majority of drivers, and Sunday’s wreck was exactly the reason why.

Credit goes to Edwards for manning up to his mistake, and I want to give Biffle credit too for not jumping down his Roush-Fenway teammate’s throat. Biffle would’ve been well within his rights to, considering Edwards’ bump sent him sideways, into Kenseth and all hell broke loose from there.

Still, if Edwards and Biffle fall short in their quest for the title this year, we can probably point to The Big One when explaining why.

Don’t Blame Goodyear This Time

Sure, there were a lot of blown tires on Sunday, but this wasn’t Indy Part II. The tire debacle at the Brickyard was entirely Goodyear’s fault for not bringing the right compound to the track after doing what they said was an exhaustive tire test.

Sunday’s issues – which led to blown tires for David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, Mike Wallace and Denny Hamlin – were likely more an issue of either the track surface or car setups. Aggressive camber settings and low air pressures can sometimes lead to disastrous tire failure.

But think about this: Friday’s ARCA race at Talladega faced similar tire issues – the ARCA Series runs on Hoosier tires, so it wasn’t just Goodyear. The Truck Series race also saw its share of blown-out tires, running theoretically a different Goodyear compound than the Sprint Cup cars.

Something needs to be done, no doubt – Hamlin’s impact was so fierce, he wound up going to a Birmingham hospital overnight after complaining of headaches and a sore right ankle – but I don’t think the blame lies with Goodyear this time.

Again, look at either the track itself or have crews examine their setups a little closer.

Side Note

I just realized: this is the 43rd post in this blog. It could just be the fact that I'm a NASCAR geek, but I think that's pretty cool. Besides, if you're reading this and I have to explain to you why No. 43 is so freakin' cool when it comes to auto racing, then you really don't know anything about the sport, do you?