Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

History Again: Johnson Wins Fifth Straight Cup

Midway through the race at Phoenix -- when Denny Hamlin was dominating and Jimmie Johnson was mired in the back end of the top 10 -- I began thinking my pre-Chase pick to win the Sprint Cup was up in smoke.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, picking Johnson and the No. 48 team. They'd won the last four, and it felt like a smart pick to go with that team unless and until someone beat them. And at the time, it looked like Hamlin and the No. 11 team were about to do that.

Then the fuel gamble at Phoenix happened. And 24 laps into Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin made contact with Greg Biffle and slid through the grass, damaging the right front corner of his splitter. His crew fought valiantly to fix the damage, but the car was never the same.

Johnson, meanwhile, had a relatively easy day of it (even when his pit crew lost him spots in the pits), finishing second to Carl Edwards and clinching his fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship. Johnson is now third all-time in titles, behind Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who each have seven.

No, you did not read that wrong.

We can debate the validity of Johnson's titles with relation to Earnhardt and Petty, since they were won under different formats, later. But the fact remains that Johnson is among the best in the sport's modern era, and he's eclipsed even his mentor, Jeff Gordon, since he now has one more championship under his belt.

But the way that Johnson won this title, pushed like no other time during his run by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, makes this one so remarkable. After Hamlin won at Martinsville and Texas, taking the points lead in the latter race before so thoroughly dominating Phoenix, it was easy to say Hamlin had it in the bag.

Even though he was only up by 15 points heading into Homestead, Hamlin seemed like a good pick; after all, the leader heading into the final race hadn't lost since that epic three-way battle in 1992.

But Hamlin could never recover from his early incident. Though he won a series-high eight races this season, doubling his career total, Hamlin came up 39 points short -- having a bad day at the worst possible time.

Still, look out for Hamlin in 2011. Sometimes you have to lose a championship before you win one.

The amazing thing about Johnson's run this year was how consistent he ran once the Chase started. Consider the finishes: 25th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 5th and 2nd. That's one finish outside the top 10 and seven top-5s. Johnson may have only won one race, but he was more consistent than either Hamlin or Harvick.

It also helped that crew chief Chad Knaus had a little extra motivation thanks to some trash talk from Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford after the Texas race. Knaus admitted after Sunday's race how much those comments bothered him, and he turned that into motivation to go out and get this title.

Little tip to the No. 11 team and everyone else; trash-talking the No. 48 team will backfire on you. Especially if you've yet to actually win a championship.

Can Johnson make it six in a row next season? No reason to think he can't, though I think Harvick and Hamlin will have something to say about it. Don't forget about Edwards, either; ending 2010 with back-to-back wins could catapult Edwards back into championship contention in 2011.

Next season could prove to be just as competitive and exciting as this year, which should excite any NASCAR fan. But before we look ahead to 2011, we'd be remiss if we didn't give proper due to Johnson for the history he made in 2010.

Mad props, JJ.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A New Champion?

I picked Jimmie Johnson to win his fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship before the Chase started back in September, and that still looks like a really good choice, even as Johnson sits 15 points behind Denny Hamlin heading into this weekend's finale at Homestead-Miami.

Part of me wants to stick with that prediction. But the more I think about this, the more convinced I am that Hamlin will hoist the trophy Sunday evening, not Johnson or Kevin Harvick.

Spare me the argument that Hamlin blew it last weekend in Phoenix, how fuel strategy would ultimately cost him the championship. First of all, Hamlin still holds the points lead after his 12th-place finish in the desert. Secondly, I don't buy the argument that Hamlin lost his cool in a very un-champion-like fashion afterward, tossing a water bottle at his car before expressing his disappointment in the post-race interview.

It was the heat of the moment. Hamlin had the day's best car -- leading a race-high 190 laps -- and would've finished first or second to pad his points lead had fuel not been an issue. I guarantee you'd be peeved if that had been you.

The reason I feel better about Hamlin with each passing day is two-fold: momentum and fast cars.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Hamlin has momentum on his side, as planned. Since Martinsville, Hamlin has turned up the proverbial wick, winning at Martinsville and Texas, while surviving Talladega and dominating Phoenix before being bitten by strategy. His 12th-place effort at Phoenix was Hamlin's worst of the Chase, and Hamlin is the defending winner at Homestead.

Also, Hamlin's cars this season have been fast. Not just as Martinsville or Pocono or Richmond; he's been fast at plate tracks and intermediate tracks. Wins at Texas, Darlington and Michigan expanded Hamlin's resume, and in recent weeks, Hamlin's cars have been faster than Johnson's or Harvick's.

So when you have a fast car and a good pit crew -- one you didn't swap for just two weeks ago -- and a game plan that you've stuck with, even as Johnson dominated Dover and ripped off top-5 after top-5, you feel pretty good being up 15 points heading into the finale.

No doubt Hamlin will have to be on his game on Sunday to beat Johnson and Harvick. But Hamlin has been on his game all season, even in the immediate aftermath of ACL surgery. When he came to Phoenix in April, just 10 days after surgery, Hamlin struggled with an ill-handling race car that had also been damaged, while also dealing with horrible pain in his knee.

But Hamlin never called for a relief driver. He toughed it out at Phoenix, showing his team his commitment to this season. The following week, Hamlin won at Texas.

Everyone likes to talk about how Johnson bounces back from adversity and steps up when it matters most, but that's exactly what Hamlin has done this season. Adversity and poor finishes that would've doomed the No. 11 team in years past haven't this year; Hamlin simply bounces back and lets the on-track results speak for themselves.

I've yet to see anything to tell me this time will be different. I look for Hamlin to not only take the championship this weekend, but I wouldn't be surprised if he does so in Victory Lane.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Where To Start?

Who says NASCAR is boring?

So much happened in Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway that I honestly don't know where to begin. Do we go with Denny Hamlin's statement win that has him 33 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson with two races left in the Chase?

What about the Jeff Gordon-Jeff Burton fight, which was unexpected and far more violent than other driver tussles in recent memory?

Or Kyle Busch giving a NASCAR official the double bird while serving a penalty, only to be slapped with another two-lap penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct?

Maybe we could talk about how No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus effectively benched his pit crew after several slow pit stops and replaced them with the No. 24 pit crew after Gordon's wreck?

I guess I could hit on all the points briefly.

Hamlin's Statement: Could we finally see a champion other than Johnson in the Sprint Cup Series? If Hamlin and the No. 11 team have any say in it -- and crew chief Mike Ford had plenty to say after the race Sunday -- yes. Hamlin's win at Texas -- his second at the track this season, eighth win of the year and second in the last three races -- gives him a 33-point lead over Johnson with two races left.

The last time the points leader with two races to go lost the championship was in 1992, when Alan Kulwicki waged a comeback for the ages to win his lone Cup Series title.

Johnson's numbers at Phoenix -- four wins, a 4.9 average finish -- are sick, but don't discount Hamlin. He finished second at Phoenix last November and the No. 11 team thrives on flat tracks (see Martinsville, New Hampshire, Pocono). Hamlin is also the defending race winner at Homestead, site of the season finale.

Twice in the Chase, Hamlin has said he would win, and both times he did. Maybe the No. 11 team has the stones and the wherewithal to finally dethrone Johnson.

FIGHT!: When Gordon and Burton wrecked under caution midway through the race, it was an odd turn of events. Replays of the incident made it appear Burton intentionally drove Gordon into the fence -- which doesn't make a lot of sense, because anyone who knows what kind of driver Burton is knows he doesn't do stuff like that.

Which is why I buy his explanation that the contact was incidental, and that he couldn't get off Gordon's car as it careened toward the wall.

Gordon didn't buy that explanation, though, walking almost the length of the back straightaway to confront Burton. This wasn't a shouting match, though; Gordon greeted Burton with a shove (far harder than the one he gave Matt Kenseth at Bristol a few years back) before trying to get Burton in a headlock to deliver a few punches to the face.

NASCAR officials separated the two ... before making them climb into the same ambulance to be taken to the infield care center. What kind of sense does that make?

Still, the fight was a hit (did you hear the fans when it happened?), and let's not forget: NASCAR first rose to national prominence in 1979 ... when a few guys named Allison and Cale Yarborough had a fight after the Daytona 500. Sponsors might not like this sort of stuff, but the fans obviously do.

Disrespecting Officials: When an NFL or NBA coach or player criticizes officials after a game, the respective leagues hand down pretty big fines. The NBA even issues fines for players or coaches who verbally berate officials during the game. Could you imagine what would happen if LeBron James gave an official the double bird during an NBA game?

That's basically what Kyle Busch did on Sunday. After spinning, Busch was caught speeding off pit road to stay on the lead lap. When Busch came back into the pits to serve his one-lap penalty, Busch hurled a couple choice words over the radio, and as he sat in his stall, he gave the NASCAR official standing in front of his car not one, but two middle fingers.

For several seconds. For the in-car camera to see. NASCAR responded by giving Busch a two-lap "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalty, and crew chief Dave Rogers chewed his driver a new one over the radio (wonder how many times Steve Addington wanted to do that).

NASCAR hinted after the race further punishments might be coming during the week -- because berating and disrespecting officials is just one thing NASCAR cannot, and will not, tolerate. "Boys, have at it" applies only to the drivers (see Gordon and Burton), not to directing officials.

Substitution: An awful lot of noise being made over Knaus benching the No. 48 pit crew midway through Sunday's race in favor of the No. 24 crew -- who had been consistently turning in better pit stops throughout the day.

Look ... Knaus is trying to win another championship, and if he felt swapping pit crews was the way to do it, then so be it. It's obviously not against the rules (no matter how much the conspiracy theorists want it to be), and it's not terribly different from what Richard Childress did before the Martinsville race, when he swapped the pit crews for Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

Childress just didn't make the move in the middle of a race.

Johnson said it best after the race: the No. 48 team is in it to win a championship, and if the team isn't performing, a change had to be made. If any feelings were hurt ... well, too bad.

One More Thing: Congratulations to Brad Keselowski and the No. 22 Discount Tire/Ruby Tuesday Penske Dodge team. With a third-place finish on Saturday at Texas, Keselowski clinched the 2010 Nationwide Series championship with two races to go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Well Well Well ...

What was it I said a few weeks ago about crowning Jimmie Johnson?

Sure, things looked great for Johnson after winning at Dover and finishing second to Greg Biffle at Kansas -- hell, with Fontana, Charlotte and Martinsville on the horizon, I would've felt pretty damn good if I were in the No. 48 camp. And with finishes of third, third and fifth in those three races, Johnson still has the points lead.

But Denny Hamlin is coming. Consider:

-As strong as Johnson is at Martinsville, Hamlin is just as good. His win on Sunday is Hamlin's third straight at the Virginia short track. Hamlin and Johnson have combined to win the last eight races at Martinsville.

-Hamlin led laps at both Charlotte and Martinsville. Johnson didn't. That's 10 bonus points to Hamlin.

-Late at Fontana, Clint Bowyer got by Johnson -- five points swinging Hamlin's way. Kyle Busch got by Johnson late at Charlotte, another five-point swing for Hamlin. Johnson's short-run car faltered in the long run to end Sunday's race, and when Busch got by Johnson for fourth, that was another five-point swing Hamlin's way.

-When Johnson finished 25th at Loudon to open the Chase, Hamlin finished second. Johnson has finished 25th, first, second, third, third and fifth so far in the Chase; Hamlin has finished second, ninth, 12th, eighth, fourth and first.

-Johnson's six-point lead is the closest margin between first and second in the points this late into the Chase in the format's history.

So the momentum is clearly swinging Hamlin's way, as he sits just six points out of the lead as the series heads to Talladega this weekend. As we all know, anything can happen at Talladega; Johnson's escaped the track unscathed each of the last four years -- even missing the Big One in 2008 that took out virtually all of the other Chase drivers -- but his luck has to run out at some point, right?

But don't forget Kevin Harvick, only 62 points out after a strong run Sunday. He's great at Talladega, and he won there back in the spring. Talladega could be the track where the "regular season" points leader finally makes his move.

Or maybe the top three in points all get caught up in the big wreck, and someone we thought was out of it -- say, Busch or Jeff Gordon -- wins the race to reassert themselves in the Chase heading into the last three races.

You just never know.

But we do know this: Hamlin had to be strong at Martinsville. He had to finish in front of Johnson. He did just that, even backing up his pre-race prediction that he would win. Hamlin and Johnson now each have seven wins this season, and just six points separate them with four races left.

Buckle up, boys and girls. Things are about to get interesting ...

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Legacy of Tim Richmond

What exactly is the late Tim Richmond's legacy?

The ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, Tim Richmond: To The Limit, which aired Tuesday night, offers a few possibilities. Some might choose to remember him as a great driver with an unrivaled charisma and personality that endeared him to fans and rubbed fellow competitors the wrong way. Others might remember him as a wild party animal whose outlandish lifestyle ultimately caught up with him.

Or maybe it was simply as the late Dale Earnhardt once said, "That man can drive."

Boy, could he -- to the tune of 13 career wins in what was then the Winston Cup Series, including seven in 1986, when he finished third in the points and tied with Earnhardt for Driver of the Year. Then winning his first two races back in 1987 -- at Pocono and Riverside -- following his first health-induced hiatus.

Richmond's talent was never disputed, but in the 1980s, he was everything NASCAR wasn't. He wasn't a good ol' boy. He was handsome, charming, hailed from Ohio. He loved flying private jets to Manhattan and Los Angeles, he favored designer clothes -- and boy, did he like to party.

Competitors were wary of Richmond, at best.

I view Richmond the same way I see Davey Allison; a young driver with plenty of promise and talent, snuffed out way before his time. Fans always have an "If only ..." wistfulness about them when they talk about Allison, and the same can be said of Richmond.

What if Richmond, who had the bulk of his success driving for Rick Hendrick, hadn't died in 1989? What if he'd never contracted AIDS? Would Earnhardt still have won his seven Cup titles? Would Jeff Gordon have won four? If Richmond's career had run its full course, where would he be on the all-time wins list?

Would we be debating his candidacy for the NASCAR Hall of Fame?

NASCAR practically forced Richmond out of the sport amid rumors he had AIDS -- something he never publicly disclosed because he knew his career would be over. This was before other prominent athletes, such as Lakers legend Magic Johnson, came forward with the disease, and so little was known about it.

AIDS was still considered a gay disease back then. If you had it, that meant you were gay. NASCAR had no idea what to do with that. Yes, it was crass and deplorable, but that was the climate back in the 1980s. Hindsight tells us NASCAR was wrong to ostracize Richmond for his disease, but even the medical community knew little about AIDS back then.

If a driver came forward with AIDS today, the response would likely be much different.

Frankly, NASCAR today could use another driver like Richmond. Not necessarily for his talent -- there are plenty of talented drivers out there -- but because of his personality and carefree attitude. Sponsors might not care for that, but fans see today's drivers as boring corporate cardboard cutouts; a guy like Richmond coming in to shake things up would be just the medicine NASCAR needs.

Then again, Richmond was one of a kind. There will never be another like him, and I'm glad ESPN and NASCAR decided to tell his story for today's audience. Despite his tragic downfall, Tim Richmond is one of NASCAR's legends, and he deserves to be remembered.

But just think of what could've been if he hadn't died. If only ...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

McMurray Presents Quandry

What a year for Jamie McMurray.

He won the Daytona 500. He won the Brickyard 400. And on Saturday night, he won the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, becoming the first non-Chase driver to win a Chase race since ... Jamie McMurray, last year at Talladega.

In picking up his third win of the season, a resurgent McMurray is having the season of his life.

But he's not in the Chase. Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth -- all of whom have not won this year -- are. Granted, there's something to be said for consistency; McMurray has seven finishes of 25th or worse this season, all but off-setting his career-best nine top-5s and 11 top-10s.

But shouldn't the driver who's won three of the biggest races of the season have a spot in NASCAR's version of the playoffs?

The debate over which matters more -- wins or consistency -- is almost as old as NASCAR itself. It flared up in 2003, after Kenseth won the title with just one win -- and essentially created the Chase -- and eventually resulted in the current formula where every driver who wins a race in the first 26 races receives a 10-point bonus that amounts to seeding once the Chase starts.

But consistency still rules the day -- which explains how winless drivers make the Chase, while McMurray, easily the 2010 Comeback Driver of the Year (if NASCAR gave such an award), is on the outside looking in.

Not that McMurray's complaining. He's made history, both for himself and for car owner Chip Ganassi. He's got over $6 million in the bank this season alone, and he's got three more wins this season than a four-time Cup Series champion.

It's a tight rope, determining whether wins or consistent finishes should wind up deciding the champion. In a perfect world, both would be rewarded; the season is long, and a run of several poor finishes would doom anyone. But logically, there is a problem when the winner of the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 can't even compete for the championship.

McMurray may not be complaining. But it's definitely a head-scratcher.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class Is ...

David Pearson: Pearson is a three-time NASCAR champion whose career total of 105 victories is second on the all-time list (behind only Richard Petty). Pearson won his titles in 1966, '68 and '69. He also won the sport's biggest event, the Daytona 500, in 1976. In 1998, he was named one of NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers." Many argued that he should've been included in the inaugural Hall class, and if the class had been larger, he would've been enshrined alongside the likes of Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Bobby Allison: Allison, winner of the 1983 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship, ended his career with 84 victories, tied with Darrell Waltrip for third on the all-time list. In 1972, he won 10 races, had 12 second-place finishes, finishing second in the championship to Richard Petty. Allison captured the NASCAR Modified Special Division championship in 1962 and '63, and then went on to win the Modified Division the following two years. In 1998, Allison was named one of NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers."

Lee Petty: Richard Petty's father became the sport's first three-time series champion after winning titles in 1954, '58 and '59. He also was the winner of the first Daytona 500 in 1959 over Johnny Beauchamp, decided after three days of reviewing the classic photo finish. His 54 career victories stands ninth on the all-time list and he never finished lower than fourth in points from 1949-59. In 1998, he was named one of NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers." Petty is also the founder of Petty Enterprises; as an owner, he had more than 2,000 starts and 268 victories.

Ned Jarrett: Jarrett was a two-time NASCAR champion (1961 and '65) and two-time Sportsman Division champion (1957 and '58). Through his career, he totaled 50 premier series victories, tied for 11th all time. In 1998 he was named one of NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers." After retiring in 1966, Jarrett helped grow the sport through his second career as a broadcaster. Much of NASCAR's growth coincided with Jarrett's presence in the booth, for multiple outlets including ESPN and CBS. Perhaps his most famous call came in 1993, when he sat in the CBS booth while son Dale Jarrett captured his first Daytona 500.

Bud Moore: A decorated World War II infantryman, Bud Moore became a successful Cup owner almost immediately upon fielding a team in 1961. Moore won back-to-back championships in 1962-63 with Joe Weatherly. Earlier, in 1957, Moore -- who referred to himself as "a country mechanic" -- was crew chief for champion Buck Baker. Among those who have driven for Bud Moore at some point in their careers: Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Isaac, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Ricky Rudd and Donnie Allison.

Now, before I get into the debate over who should've gotten in but didn't, let's remember that the NASCAR Hall of Fame is still in its first year. We're still at the point where we're talking about nominees who are virtually guaranteed enshrinement; it's not a matter of if a lot of these guys will get in, but when.

Good luck convincing me guys like Red Byron and Darrell Waltrip won't soon find themselves in the Hall of Fame. Same goes for Dale Inman and Cale Yarborough.

At this point, all arguments over Hall of Fame induction boil down to the order of enshrinement; who should go first -- legendary drivers who captured fans' imaginations or those who pioneered the sport and made stock car racing what it is today? It's an interesting debate, one I'm not sure I have an answer for.

I find it interesting that Allison was enshrined, but not Waltrip -- who's tied with him with 84 career wins -- or Yarborough, who has 83. Waltrip and Yarborough each have three championships -- Yarborough three straight -- to Allison's one. I'm not saying Allison doesn't deserve enshrinement -- he certainly does -- but ahead of two guys with more titles?

Waltrip also has the "ambassador to the sport" angle, given his TV work over the past decade. If we're going to factor that into Jarrett's induction, then it has to work in DW's favor.

And what of the pioneers? Guys like Byron and Raymond Parks? Parks was the Rick Hendrick of his day, owning the first championship-winning car in 1949, and his enshrinement seems inevitable. Still, the sooner the pioneers are enshrined, the better -- after all, how can we truly understand NASCAR's present if we don't constantly remind ourselves of its past?

I'm also vehement in suggesting Inman deserves enshrinement ASAP. The winningest crew chief ever with eight -- he won seven with Petty and another with Terry Labonte in 1984 -- Inman was as much a pioneer as the names mentioned above. People like to talk about Ray Evernham or Chad Knaus being eventual Hall of Famers, but it would be a travesty if they're inducted before Inman.

Like I said, we're still talking about people who will be enshrined -- we're still a few years away from truly starting to debate whether or not someone deserves to be inducted -- but I think it would behoove NASCAR and the Hall of Fame voting panel if we started recognizing the pioneers and a few of the more accomplished drivers.

All in all, though, this year's inductees are fine additions to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The 25 nominees were excellent candidates, and to whittle them down to five couldn't have been easy. Here's hoping some of the names I mentioned above are called next year.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Best Fontana Race Ever?

Sunday's Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway was historic on a couple fronts -- most notably as the last Chase race at the 2-mile oval in southern California and the first race at the track to be 400 miles instead of 500.

The result? Quite possibly the best race ever at a track that has often produced pedestrian racing.

The first half of the race was typical Fontana; long green-flag runs, a lot of single-file racing and the leader checking out on the field. But the final 100 laps produced enough excitement to make up for it, with battles up front for the lead complimented by four-, five- and sometimes even six-wide racing back in the pack.

Sometimes, the action on the backstretch more closely resembled Talladega than Fontana.

But why was this race so thrilling when so many others at this track have been snoozers? Was it the hot conditions, leading to a slicker race track that had less grip? Was there desperation on everyone's part to beat points leader Jimmie Johnson at a track he has so thoroughly dominated? Was it the fact that there were 50 fewer laps, and thus a greater sense of urgency?

Possibly all of the above; though I would definitely be in favor of every Sprint Cup race at this track being 400 miles. Some tracks don't take kindly to 500-mile marathons, and Fontana is one of them.

Now, to get Pocono down to 400 miles ...

Tony Stewart won the race to vault himself into fifth in the standings, 107 behind Johnson (who finished third). Stewart also whittled down his list of Sprint Cup tracks on which he has yet to win to two -- Las Vegas and Darlington.

On a day where a lot of other Chase drivers struggled -- blown motors for Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch, an accident for Kurt Busch -- Stewart truly helped his championship hopes goes into the last six races.

Don't count Stewart out. He's got four guys to leapfrog over (Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon), but if anyone can do it, it's him.

Does Sunday's race mean Fontana deserved to keep both dates after all? No, because the attendance issues still haven't been resolved. That was what prompted NASCAR to move one date from Fontana to Kansas in the first place -- not the mediocre racing, but all those empty seats. Sunday's race had its share, and the thinking is that with one date starting next year -- in late March -- interest in the race will rekindle.

If that race sticks to 400 miles, and we see the sort of side-by-side, slipping and sliding action we saw on Sunday, something tells me the fans will start coming back to Fontana.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Sprint Cup Car Unveiled ... Sort Of

When NASCAR introduced the current-generation race car in 2007 -- then dubbed the Car of Tomorrow -- the sanctioning body was adamant that no changes would be forthcoming, even as fan complaints regarding aesthetics and competition increased.

Then NASCAR removed the rear wing this past March and replaced it with a spoiler. The aesthetic improvement was immediate, and though I haven't noticed much difference in competition, some have made the argument that getting rid of the wing has produced better racing.

More changes are coming in 2011, but they're not as radical as one might fear. In fact, the changes have already been previewed in the Nationwide Series, which ran the new-generation car in a few races earlier this year (and will do so one more time next Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway). The new Nationwide Series car has a front splitter, but it's more rounded and does not have the braces featured on the current Sprint Cup Series car and the trucks in the Camping World Truck Series.

Well, if you saunter on over to Jayski and visit the page for 2011 Sprint Cup Series paint schemes, you'll notice that the front ends look ... different. More rounded, no splitter braces. Reports earlier this season indicated NASCAR is looking to bring manufacturer identity back to the series, perhaps by 2012 or 2013.

Some would extrapolate that means NASCAR wants pony cars in the Sprint Cup Series by that time. With the new Nationwide Series cars, which will be run full-time next season, Ford has brought the Mustang into NASCAR, while Dodge has received rave reviews for its Challenger.

So think about that. Pony cars in the Sprint Cup Series? Possibly.

In the meantime, enjoy this image of what Jimmie Johnson's car could look like next season.

NASCAR and South Park: a Winning Combination?

Kenny McCormack is poor and stupid -- so naturally, he loves NASCAR.

At least, that's how Eric Cartman thinks on Wednesday night's episode of South Park on Comedy Central. The long-running animated comedy turned its attention to America's premiere form of motorsport in its most recent episode, and anyone who knows anything about the show should've had an idea of what was coming:

Lots of NASCAR stereotypes, and maybe a few "Oh, no they didn't!" moments. After all, we're talking about South Park here -- there isn't anyone that show hasn't gone after in its 13-year run. So knowing what I was in for going in, I wasn't offended. I was uncomfortable on a few occasions, which I'll get into in a moment, but I was far from offended.

See, when done right, NASCAR stereotypes can be funny. Let's face it, the stereotypes are there because at some point, to some degree, they've been true.

But was the episode funny?

Frankly, I didn't think so. I love South Park, and I think it's one of the funniest shows on the air. Even when the show lampoons people I like or causes I believe in, it does so with such wit that it's still entertaining. But last night's episode missed the mark; much like Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, I found the vast majority of the show's jokes flat and uninspired.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the episode yet, and hope to catch it either online or when Comedy Central re-airs it, stop reading.

Basically, Cartman wants to be a NASCAR driver ... but doesn't think he'll make it, because he's not poor or stupid enough. When his friend Kyle convinces him that he is in fact poor and stupid, Cartman enlists the help of Butters (who will obviously never learn) and embarks on a quest to become a big-time NASCAR driver.

The first try? Downing a bunch of Vagisil to kill brain cells (I am not making this shit up), hijacking a car that looks suspiciously like Jeff Gordon's before a race, only to drive the wrong way on the track, send another car flying into the stands and flip into a lake near Victory Lane.

Fans were killed, the media lambasted fans for being stupid ... and Cartman landed a sponsorship deal from Vagisil.

Which leads me to Uncomfortable Moment #1: the car flying into the stands, and the reporter later claiming several fans had been killed. Considering last year's near-miss at Talladega -- you know, Carl Edwards nearly flying into the crowd -- I thought this was a bit on the nose. I know South Park goes for shock value, but ... damn.

Cut to a press conference before the next race (apparently, in South Park, the big boys race in Colorado) ... where reporters are asking star drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick questions. Cartman butts into the intelligent discussion about track temperatures and tire biases to make more "poor and stupid" comments -- before insulting both Earnhardt and Patrick when they questioned him.

Brief aside ... Junior in a Budweiser firesuit? Hello, 2007. Also, Kenseth and DeWalt parted ways last year. Get with it, South Park!

After a brief spoof of one of my favorite TV shows, ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, we get back to the track -- where Cartman proceeds to wreck people on the pace lap. That Cartman would be on a rampage, wrecking everyone in sight, is no surprise -- but when Patrick gets out of her car and winds up run over by Cartman ... hello, Uncomfortable Moment #2.

Eventually, Cartman has wrecked everyone -- to the delight of Vagisil's founder. Kenny has spent all this time trying to stop Cartman, determined to defend NASCAR fans against the "poor and stupid" stereotype, even going so far as to try and bring a sniper rifle to the track (only to have the security guard at the gate tell him he can't bring it in, but "you can probably buy one at the gift shop" -- I'll admit, that was funny).

At one point, Kenny winds up on the track, watching two cars side-by-side barreling toward him. Ironically, they miss him. Oh, my God ... they didn't kill Kenny!

But now the Vagisil founder's wife, tired of being the brunt of his insults, decides a little revenge is in order. So she goes out, pulls Johnson from his wrecked car, and proceeds to beat and bang with Cartman as they approach the finish line.

And guess what ... even in South Park, the No. 48 car wins.

It's not fair.

At the end of it all, Cartman didn't learn his lesson. Then again, he never does. I appreciate that the show took pains to show just how wrong Cartman was, but all in all, this wasn't one of their better episodes. It wasn't all that funny, and even though I was never offended, those uncomfortable moments helped ruin the experience.

In a way, South Park paying attention to NASCAR can be seen as a good thing; this is still the country's second most popular spectator sport behind the NFL, but the sport does need to bring in more, younger fans. I don't know if an episode of South Park can help with that, but I don't see how it can hurt, either.

My only suggestion is this: next time South Park wants to tackle NASCAR, at least make it funny.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Don't Crown Johnson Yet

Former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green is largely famous for a post-game tirade a few years back when he said of the Chicago Bears, "Now, if you wanna crown 'em, then crown their asses! But they are who we thought they were! That's why we took the damn field!"

Well, Jimmie Johnson is who we thought he was, but don't go crowning his ass (or anything else) just yet. Yes, he followed up his win at Dover with a strong second-place running Sunday at Kansas, and yes, he now has the points lead -- by eight over Denny Hamlin.

Cynics and pundits might be tempted to just hand Johnson his fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship after Sunday's race -- where Johnson rebounded from an ill-handling car early to turn in a vintage Johnson performance -- but in the words of college football analyst Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend.

After all, the top 10 in points are closer at this point than they've ever been, with 10th-place Tony Stewart just 127 points back. The top eight in points are separated by just 85 points, and one bad run or bout of misfortune can leave Johnson in a hole. With seven races to go, that's a possibility.

I realize the series heads to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. next -- where Johnson has five career wins and three of the last four there -- and then Charlotte and Martinsville (all tracks very good for Johnson on paper), but there's no telling. Johnson might win at Fontana, or his engine might blow.

As strong as Johnson is at Martinsville, Hamlin is just as strong.

And don't forget ... Talladega is still looming on the horizon. Anything can happen there; theoretically, anyone but Clint Bowyer could leave Talladega the points leader. I realize Johnson has successfully navigated Talladega each of the last four years -- even in 2008, when the Big One seemed to claim literally every other Chase contender -- but that luck has to run out sooner or later, right?

If it sounds like I'm grasping at anything to avoid facing the reality of a fifth straight title from Johnson ... well, that might be true, but that doesn't make me wrong in anything I've said. On paper, the championship appears to be Johnson's for the taking. The tracks line up -- on paper -- and no one else has been quite as strong through three Chase races (not even Greg Biffle, who won at Kansas).

But you just never know. Fluke things happen. Parts break. Maybe Johnson finds himself around Sam Hornish Jr., like he did last year in Texas. Maybe he gets caught up in something else not of his doing. Maybe the No. 48 team makes another mistake, like they seemed to do in the regular season.

Or maybe Johnson dominates, wins two of the next three races and leaves everyone else scratching their heads. You never know.

Johnson might very well win his fifth straight title, but given how tight the points are, and some of the obstacles looming on the horizon, crown his ass at your own risk.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Don't Look Now ...

... but here comes Jimmie Johnson.

It's almost like clockwork, the way Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team assert themselves in the final 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, even after everyone's written them off and deemed someone else "the favorite." This year, the favorite is Denny Hamlin (who, to be fair, is still the points leader) and Johnson had his share of "regular season" struggles that led everyone to think this might be the year someone unseats him.

Then Dover happened.

Johnson spanked the field at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, leading the most laps in winning his sixth race of the season. The Monster Mile is Johnson's personal playground (much like Martinsville and Fontana and Charlotte); he's won there six times -- including three of the last four.

That Johnson won in such dominant fashion at Dover is not surprising. But given the lackluster way in which the No. 48 team opened the Chase in New Hampshire -- struggling to a 25th-place finish -- the team needed a rebound like this. There are still eight races left, including wild card tracks Martinsville and Talladega -- and Hamlin has consistently outperformed Johnson on the intermediate tracks this season, but make no mistake ... the Chase still goes through the No. 48 team, and it will not be taken from that team easily.

There's a reason Johnson is the four-time defending series champion; he and Knaus have mastered the seven-year-old championship format better than any other team, altering NASCAR history in the process. Without the Chase, Johnson would have one championship, maybe two.

Without the Chase, Johnson's mentor, Jeff Gordon, would have six titles and we'd be talking about whether or not he can tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most Cup Series championships ever.

Without the Chase, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards might've won in 2008 -- and Tony Stewart very well could've won it last year in his first year as an owner-driver.

Without the Chase, Kevin Harvick would be well on his way to winning his first Cup Series title, giving car owner Richard Childress his first championship since Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994.

These scenarios make for rousing debate -- particularly among fans who don't like the Chase format -- but I can't help but wonder how much of this is based on Johnson's dominance. If we'd had four different champions over the past four years, would we still see all of this anti-Chase sentiment?

What if Edwards won in 2008? Or Stewart last year? Would we still be crying foul over the Chase? Or are we all getting our collective panties in a bunch because the No. 48 team has figured out how to win the Chase better than anyone else? Is this a case of "Don't hate the player; hate the game"?

Though I'm noticing a lot of hate for both player and game.

Make no mistake; I'm no Johnson fan. But what he's accomplishing can neither be denied nor compared to other great champions in the sport. Petty never had to deal with a Chase, and all four of Gordon's titles were pre-Chase. That's not to say their championships are better or worse than Johnson's; they're just different.

But Johnson has already made history, and if his performance at Dover is any indication, he might just make more. And if any fan wants to let that be the reason he stops watching, then maybe he wasn't really a fan in the first place.

Like it or not, the championship still goes through Jimmie Johnson.

Monday, September 13, 2010

2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

Now that the 12-driver field for this year's Sprint Cup Series championship is set, it's time to look at all the contenders and determine who really has a shot at the title.

The Schedule
Sept. 19 -- New Hampshire
Sept. 26 -- Dover
Oct. 3 -- Kansas
Oct. 10 -- Fontana
Oct. 16 -- Charlotte
Oct. 24 -- Martinsville
Oct. 31 -- Talladega
Nov. 7 -- Texas
Nov. 14 -- Phoenix
Nov. 21 -- Homestead

The Drivers
1) Denny Hamlin (6 wins, 10 top-5s, 11 top-10s)
Hamlin was a trendy preseason pick to unseat four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, and seemed to prove all the experts right after winning five races following knee surgery. But a summer swoon plagued the No. 11 team before Hamlin spanked the field at Richmond on Saturday for his series-leading sixth win of the season -- making him the points leader now that we've reset for the Chase. Hamlin's got the speed, but reliability issues -- see blown motor at Atlanta -- could do him in. If the equipment stays together, Hamlin will be a factor.

2) Jimmie Johnson (5 wins, 10 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Don't let the summer swoon fool you; Johnson is every bit the Chase threat he was the last four years when he won them all. The No. 48 has always had a rough stretch during or before the summer that leads everyone to think they're vulnerable -- before they turn around in the final 10 races and spank everyone. That could well happen this year, because the Chase tracks are great for Johnson. Never underestimate Johnson or crew chief Chad Knaus. This title is still Johnson's to lose.

3) Kevin Harvick (3 wins, 11 top-5s, 17 top-10s)
Think Harvick should get something for being the points leader --by a commanding margin, at that -- at the end of the "regular season?" Well, so do I, but his three wins leave Harvick third after the reset. The No. 29 team has been fast and consistent all season, and his win in Michigan last month shows that Harvick is a threat on intermediate tracks -- which make up half the Chase. Don't be surprised if Harvick gives car owner Richard Childress his first Cup Series title since the late Dale Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994.

4) Kyle Busch (3 wins, 8 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Kyle Busch is a hard one to figure out -- he has the talent to rack up wins and top-5 finishes without so much as a sweat, which makes him a legitimate threat for the title. But Busch is also capable of bad runs and mechanical issues -- which sunk him in 2008. There's been a lot of talk this season of a "new Kyle Busch," one who's calmer in the car and can make the best out of bad days. If Kyle is to win the title, we'll need to see a lot more of the new Kyle than the old one -- and that's no guarantee.

5) Kurt Busch (2 wins, 8 top-5s, 15 top-10s)
The only member of the Busch family to actually have a Sprint Cup Series championship -- he won the inaugural Chase by eight points in 2004 -- Kurt has won both his races this season on 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta and Charlotte). That bodes well for Kurt, who has bonded well with Kyle Busch's former crew chief Steve Addington. Busch has also run well historically at tracks like New Hampshire and Martinsville. While his relative lack of wins have him in a little bit of a hole, Kurt is very much a title threat.

6) Tony Stewart (1 win, 7 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Don't let the one win fool you; Stewart is coming on strong at the best possible time. He won Atlanta last weekend in convincing fashion, and Stewart has had his typical strong summer, even without multiple trips to Victory Lane. That win in Atlanta might've been just what the No. 14 team needed after a slow start to the season, and I really consider Stewart one of my darkhorses for the championship -- Kurt Busch being the other. Stewart's the only driver to win a title both before and after the advent of the Chase, and he'll be looking to be the first guy not named Jimmie Johnson to win multiple Chase titles.

7) Greg Biffle (1 win, 5 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Like Stewart, Biffle has come on strong over the summer, hitting his stride at Indy and Pocono -- where he picked up his only win of the season in August. Roush-Fenway Racing as a whole has found itself after struggling for much of the season, but I don't think the No. 16 team has enough to keep up with Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick. Biffle might repeat his performance in 2008, where he won the first two Chase races, only to fade as the races wore on.

8) Jeff Gordon (0 wins, 10 top-5s, 13 top-10s)
It really seems like Gordon should be higher, doesn't it? Well, he would be with a few wins -- I can think of at least four races this season Gordon should've won, and his lack of wins will be Gordon's downfall. It might be mathematically possible to win the championship without winning a race, the only way the No. 24 team is gonna pick up its fifth championship is if Gordon makes multiple trips to Victory Lane. The way he's finishing races this season, I don't see it.

9) Carl Edwards (0 wins, 6 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Like Stewart and Roush teammate Biffle, Edwards has really improved in the last several weeks, as the No. 99 team has found much-needed speed and consistency. We've yet to see that patented backflip -- at least in the Cup Series -- and like Gordon, that will be Edwards' downfall. He's starting too far back and I'm not sure he can consistently outrun Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick -- who I consider the co-favorites.

10) Jeff Burton (0 wins, 5 top-5s, 13 top-10s)
Like Gordon, Burton could've won multiple races so far this season. But he hasn't, which also puts the No. 31 behind the proverbial 8-ball. Speed and consistency are also an issue compared to some of the other Chase teams, and I don't really consider Burton a true title threat. He's capable of proving me wrong, but his performance throughout the season has me thinking he'll finish somewhere in the lower half of the top 10.

11) Matt Kenseth (0 wins, 5 top-5s, 10 top-10s)
How is Kenseth even in the Chase? It really doesn't seem like he's run all that well this year, even as teammates Biffle and Edwards are picking up steam heading into the Chase. Kenseth's worked his way through three crew chiefs this season, quietly making laps and apparently compiling enough points to make the Chase, but I really don't see the No. 17 as anything more than an afterthought.

12) Clint Bowyer (0 wins, 4 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Bowyer gives Richard Childress three teams in the Chase, clinching a spot with a strong sixth-place run in Richmond. Consistency has been a bit of an issue for the No. 33 this year, and Bowyer hasn't had the same speed teammates Harvick and Burton have enjoyed. Bowyer did a nice job getting himself into the Chase, and he's won races before, but I don't see Bowyer as a true threat this year -- unlike 2007, when he finished third behind Johnson and Gordon.

My 2010 Champion: Jimmie Johnson -- he's the favorite and the champion until someone beats him. It's that simple.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Montreal Proving to Be NASCAR Country

Sure, the Sprint Cup Series had the weekend off, but that didn't mean there wasn't any NASCAR excitement to be had. And I'm not referring to Kyle Busch winning the Camping World Truck Series race at Chicagoland Speedway on Friday night.

Because let's face it, Busch winning a Truck race isn't all that noteworthy.

But the Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Quebec more than made up for the lack of drama, as it has every year the series has run on the picturesque road course. A quick primer of the track's NASCAR history:

-In 2007, Robby Gordon was sure he'd won after late-race contact with Marcos Ambrose. But NASCAR black-flagged Gordon, and he ignored the flag, so NASCAR took the win away from him. Kevin Harvick went on to win the first Nationwide Series race held at CGV, and both Harvick and Gordon did celebratory burnouts on the frontstretch.

-The 2008 race marked the first time that one of NASCAR's three national touring series ran in the rain. New tires made the move possible, though attachable windshield wipers and brake lights proved less than effective. Ambrose dominated the race, but a pit road speeding penalty cost him. Canadian Ron Fellows, driving for JR Motorsports, won the rain-shortened event.

-Ambrose again dominated at Montreal in 2009, but he hit the curb in the last corner on the final lap, sailed high heading to the finish line, and Carl Edwards got around him for the win.

The 2010 race was perhaps better than those three combined, though, thanks to the action throughout the day and a classic finish between Boris Said and Max Papis that was the fifth-closest in series history.

Rather than try to explain it, I offer video. It speaks for itself.

Said's win is the first in his Nationwide Series career, but the race begs the larger question of whether the track deserves a larger stage in the world of stock car racing. Stock car action at Montreal isn't unique to the Nationwide Series, either; check out the finish from Sunday's NASCAR Canadian Tire Series race:

So does CGV deserve a Sprint Cup race? Politics aside -- you know neither International Speedway Corp. or Speedway Motorsports, Inc. would give up one of their Cup dates for another track not owned by them -- I say yes. Canada has proven how passionate it is about racing, not just NASCAR, and I say it's time to reward them with a Cup date.

The stands have been packed every time the Nationwide Series has come to Montreal, unlike the races in Mexico City, which saw attendance declines every year until the series stopped running there entirely. Add that to the fact that Canadians often cross the border to watch Cup races -- Michigan International Speedway says 15 percent of its ticket sales go to Canadians, while 10 percent of those who buy tickets to New Hampshire Motor Speedway go to those who live north of the border.

Road course racing is one of the most polarizing aspects of NASCAR, but I love it. It's different, and in recent years, they've been among the most action-packed races on the schedule. The Nationwide Series made its debut at Road America earlier this season, and it was one of the best races of the year.

I think the Cup schedule needs more road courses, including one in the Chase, and I think Montreal -- which also hosts the Canadian Grand Prix for Formula 1 -- would fit in just fine for America's premiere motorsports series.

Regardless of whether Montreal gets that much-deserved Cup race, it has become a staple of the Nationwide Series and one of the series' destination races. The action never fails to disappoint, and the fans embrace the sport better than some of the tracks on this side of the border. That loyalty deserves to be rewarded, and I think NASCAR would do well to put its highest-profile, most talented series on the twists and turns at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

But what do I know? I'm just a fan.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

GREAT News for Martinsville

Martinsville Speedway announced on Thursday that, thanks to a deal between International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the 0.528-mile flat track will host two Sprint Cup Series races annually for the next five years.

The VTC will pony up $1.5 million for facility upgrades, which the speedway will match. As a result, ISC and NASCAR, which are both owned by the France family, will keep the Sprint Cup Series in southeastern Virginia twice a year through at least 2015.

According to the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin, upgrades to the track will include the creation of a new on/off ramp for race traffic that should help flow before and after the race. The money will also go to upgrading the track's concession and bathroom facilities along the frontstretch (as a fan who's attended the spring race at Martinsville annually since 2002, I can say these are sorely needed upgrades).

The first phase of upgrades will begin at the conclusion of the Sprint Cup race this October, and are scheduled to be completed by the time the series returns for the first Cup race next season on April 3. Track president Clay Campbell said the time between races made operating in phases necessary, and might explain in part the five-year deal.

Obviously, the fact that Martinsville is "safe" for the next five years will excite the local economy and hardcore NASCAR fans alike. Since Rockingham and Darlington lost races in the last decade in favor of larger media markets and tracks that produce arguably dull racing, some fans have feared Martinsville would be next.

Those fans dodged a bullet when ISC awarded Kansas Speedway a second Cup date in 2011 at the expense of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Attendance woes and a general apathy in southern California made ACS a prime candidate for contraction.

Rockingham and Darlington were also targeted because of low fan turnout and facility issues. Fans weren't buying tickets and the tracks were definitely showing their age. I love those two tracks, but the economics made the decision inevitable. Besides, Darlington has thrived with one Cup date, starting its own tradition by running a night race on Mother's Day weekend.

Something tells me Atlanta Motor Speedway (owned by Bruton Smith and his Speedway, Motorsports, Inc. company) will also benefit in the long run by only having one date.

But Martinsville is different; it is the last original NASCAR track, and it is the shortest track on the circuit. When NASCAR comes to Martinsville, it's like a blast from the past. Fans get to see what the sport was like in the early days, before multi-million dollar TV deals and sponsorship packages. There's an authenticity about Martinsville that few other tracks can duplicate, and I'm beyond thrilled that it still has its rightful place in the sport.

Memo to fans and track operators: this is how you keep your dates. Fans park their butts in the seats after buying tickets, and track operators re-invest their profits into making their facilities better. Martinsville has not sold out lately, but few tracks have -- in fact, Martinsville has largely been one of the better-attended tracks, in part because of the quality of racing and the fact that Campbell has lowered ticket prices in response to the economy.

Don't point to the attendance for the race this past March. Since the race was pushed to Monday by weather, the attendance figures would be slightly skewed.

Campbell has poured money into his track over the last several years. He's added seating, installed a new video scoring tower (rivaled only by the behemoth recently erected by Richmond International Raceway) and is now planning to make the experience even easier for the fans over several phases.

As a reward, NASCAR will keep bringing its premiere series twice a year for the next five years. And that's great news for everyone.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2011 Schedules Released

I know I'm late with this, but you'll have to forgive me. There was so much to talk about coming out of Bristol Motor Speedway this past weekend that just about anything not related to Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski would've been swept under the proverbial rug.

Still, the release of the 2011 schedules last week was anticipated, given all the changes NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France promised. There are changes, but not as sweeping as one might've expected -- or hoped.

Below are the 2011 schedules for the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series. Analysis will follow.

2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Schedule

Feb. 18 -- Daytona
Feb. 25 -- Phoenix
March 12 -- Darlington
April 2 -- Martinsville
April 22 -- Nashville
May 13 -- Dover
May 20 -- Charlotte
June 4 -- Kansas
June 10 -- Texas
July 16 -- Iowa
July 22 -- Nashville
July 29 -- ORP
Aug. 6 -- Pocono
Aug. 20 -- Michigan
Aug. 24 -- Bristol
Sept. 2 -- Atlanta
Sept. 16 -- Chicago
Sept. 24 -- Loudon
Oct. 1 -- Kentucky
Oct. 15 -- Las Vegas
Oct. 22 -- Talladega
Oct. 29 -- Martinsville
Nov. 4 -- Texas
Nov. 18 -- Homestead

Not too many surprises or changes to the Camping World Truck Series schedule -- Texas, Nashville and Martinsville are the only tracks the series visits twice -- but two moves that I like: moving Darlington from the heat of the summer to the third race of the season, and letting Pocono return. The trucks' first visit to the Pennsylvania triangle this season was a smashing success, and I'm glad they'll be returning.

The series will not return to Gateway in 2011, as the track has forfeited its Truck and Nationwide Series race dates.

2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series Schedule

Feb. 19 -- Daytona
Feb. 26 -- Phoenix
March 5 -- Las Vegas
March 19 -- Bristol
March 26 -- Fontana
April 8 -- Texas
April 16 -- Talladega
April 23 -- Nashville
April 29 -- Richmond
May 6 -- Darlington
May 14 -- Dover
May 22 -- Iowa
May 28 -- Charlotte
June 4 -- Chicago
June 18 -- Michigan
June 25 -- Road America
July 1 -- Daytona
July 8 -- Kentucky
July 16 -- Loudon
July 23 -- Nashville
July 30 -- ORP
Aug. 6 -- Iowa
Aug. 13 -- Watkins Glen
Aug. 20 -- Montreal
Aug. 26 -- Bristol
Sept. 3 -- Atlanta
Sept. 9 -- Richmond
Sept. 17 -- Chicago
Oct. 1 -- Dover
Oct. 8 -- Kansas
Oct. 14 -- Charlotte
Nov. 5 -- Texas
Nov. 12 -- Phoenix
Nov. 19 -- Homestead

A few more changes are apparent in the Nationwide Series schedule, namely the addition of a second race to both Iowa and Chicago. Iowa has seen tremendous fan support in its two Nationwide Series races to date, and it'll be interesting to see how that support holds up with the addition of the second date. Same goes for Chicago, which has been ... lukewarm to NASCAR once the novelty of the track in Joliet, Ill. wore off.

There was talk of moving the race at O'Reilly Raceway Park across town to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; fortunately, that didn't happen. We need as many short tracks as we can get in NASCAR's three national touring series, and ORP offers some of the best action in the relative lull of the summer stretch.

Also of interest to me? Back-to-back road courses in August, as the series goes to Watkins Glen and then Montreal.

2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Schedule

Feb. 12 -- Budweiser Shootout at Daytona
Feb. 17 -- Gatorade Duels at Daytona
Feb. 20 -- Daytona
Feb. 27 -- Phoenix
March 6 -- Las Vegas
March 20 -- Bristol
March 27 -- Fontana
April 3 -- Martinsville
April 9 -- Texas
April 17 -- Talladega
April 30 -- Richmond
May 7 -- Darlington
May 15 -- Dover
May 21 -- Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte
May 29 -- Charlotte
June 5 -- Kansas
June 12 -- Pocono
June 19 -- Michigan
June 26 -- Infineon
July 2 -- Daytona
July 9 -- Kentucky
July 17 -- Loudon
July 31 -- Indianapolis
Aug. 7 -- Pocono
Aug. 14 -- Watkins Glen
Aug. 21 -- Michigan
Aug. 27 -- Bristol
Sept. 4 -- Atlanta
Sept. 10 -- Richmond
***Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup***
Sept. 18 -- Chicago
Sept. 25 -- Loudon
Oct. 2 -- Dover
Oct. 9 -- Kansas
Oct. 15 -- Charlotte
Oct. 23 -- Talladega
Oct. 30 -- Martinsville
Nov. 6 -- Texas
Nov. 13 --Phoenix
Nov. 20 -- Homestead

While there are changes -- Fontana and Atlanta each lose a date, Kentucky gains one, Kansas gains a second date, Chicago is moved from July to the first race in the Chase -- they're not surprising or as impactful as many hoped (see my previous post "If I Ran NASCAR" to see my opinions on the schedule). Still, I think Atlanta only hosting one Cup race will be a good thing in the long run, and I like the first Martinsville race being pushed back a week. It might not seem like much, but it could be huge given the climate in that part of Virginia.

But one thing that bugs me ... going from Bristol to Fontana to Martinsville in back-to-back weeks? I'm guessing whoever organizes the NASCAR schedule doesn't own a map or has never had to drive a transporter cross-country.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Historic Sweep Comes With Controversy

Well, you know Kyle Busch can't do anything quietly.

Busch completed a historic sweep this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to sweep all three national touring series races in one weekend. After taking the Camping World Truck Series O'Reilly 200 on Wednesday, Busch won the Nationwide Series Food City 250 on Friday and dominated the Irwin Tools Night Race on Saturday.

But if you think it was all clean and easy ... well, you don't know Busch all that well, do you?

With 32 laps to go on Friday's Nationwide Series race, Busch raced side-by-side with Brad Keselowski. Busch had a run coming off Turn 2, but got loose and slid in front of Keselowski. Keselowski had nowhere to go, clipping the right rear of Busch's car and sending it into the wall. Keselowski went by going into Turn 3, but Busch banged into the back of Keselowski and sent him spinning into the wall.

Busch went on to win the race, much to the chagrin of many of those in attendance. Not that he cared, mocking the fans for their booing before proceeding to admit in a live television interview that he effectively pulled a Carl Edwards.

Don't believe me? Watch:

Keselowski did not retaliate Saturday night -- partly because he's still on probation following his dust-up with Edwards at Gateway -- but he did manage to get off this little shot during driver introductions:

Sadly, the video is censored. For those who can't lip-read, Keselowski called Busch an ass. Over the loudspeaker. In front of roughly 150,000 fans -- the vast majority of whom loved it.

Set aside the issue of Keselowski for a minute ... this is who Kyle Busch is, at least on the race track. To be fair, NASCAR has been in desperate need for flashy personalities for years, particularly following the death of Dale Earnhardt. Busch gives us that -- he's immensely talented, yet his attitude, unique that it is, rubs a lot of fans and competitors the wrong way.

Love him or hate him, Busch is the sort of driver you have to watch, because you never know what you're going to see. He might dominate a race and win going away, or he might put himself in the fence. He might even make a mistake in the car, then turn around and blame someone else and spin him out.

You just never know, which is part of Busch's appeal.

The talent is indisputable -- when Kurt Busch won his only Sprint Cup title in 2004, he warned everyone that he had a younger brother who was even better than him. The attitude is what polarizes everyone (though this Richmond incident in 2008 didn't help matters). Some fans love Busch's style, but most don't.

The reaction to Keselowski's statement on Saturday is all the proof you need.

As for Keselowski ... for someone who has this reputation of being a rough and dirty driver, Keselowski sure is on the receiving end of intentional wrecks a lot. Keselowski is aggressive, sometimes too much so, but that aggression got him to where he is today, and it's a big reason Roger Penske hired him away from Rick Hendrick, even though Hendrick desperately wanted to keep him.

We've mentioned the probation, and there's thought that Keselowski hasn't retaliated yet because of that. It's a valid argument, but I think it goes deeper. Penske, Keselowski's car owner, strikes me as the sort of guy who doesn't tolerate race cars being used as weapons, so maybe he's had a conversation or two with Keselowski about how to handle his incidents with Edwards and now Busch.

But think about this: for all his aggression, Keselowski isn't the type to intentionally dump people (if you throw the Talladega incident in my face, you lose all credibility). Yeah, he'll bump and rub and make contact and put his car in places a lot of other drivers won't. But guess what? That landed him his ride with JR Motorsports. That landed him his first career Sprint Cup Series win at Talladega. That got him his ride with Penske, and it will more than likely land him the Nationwide Series championship this year.

Oh, and it landed him one of NASCAR's most iconic rides, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, next season.

Maybe that's what has Edwards, Busch and Denny Hamlin all ticked off at Keselowski; he's talented, he's aggressive and most importantly, he beats them. Most importantly, he won't back down. In 2008 and 2009, Keselowski was the only non-Cup driver who regularly raced with and beat the Cup drivers moonlighting in the Nationwide Series.

Trust me, the only way not to make veteran drivers mad at you is if they beat you. Keselowski beats these guys on a semi-regular basis, which upsets their mental sense of hierarchy.

All Keselowski has done is the same thing that he's been doing all along, which is what's allowed him to ascend the ranks of NASCAR. It's entirely conceivable for Keselowski to retire as a Sprint Cup Series champion, and he's not going to let rankled veterans of questionable maturity stand in his way.

And don't mistake Keselowski's reticence to retaliate for letting Busch and others walk all over them. Keselowski will have his revenge, in his own way and on his own terms.

Busch can win all the races and set all the records he wants. He certainly has the talent, and he may one day win the Sprint Cup. But he has a lot of maturing to do before that day comes, and no matter what anyone tells you, Busch is not, and will never be, anything like the late Dale Earnhardt.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I love NASCAR, have since I was a teenager and I watched Jeff Gordon win the inaugural Brickyard 400. I love the smell of burnt rubber and racing fuel, and I still get chills every time the engines fire. I love the competition, I love the speed, I love the action. I always have since that fateful day, and I always will.

It would take an awful lot to get me to abandon this sport. Even given that, I realize the sport is not perfect. There are some things I would like to see done to make the sport more exciting. I would like to see tweaks in the points system, I would like to change up the schedules and I would like to continue tweaking on the race cars.

Below are things I would do if I were the CEO & Chairman of NASCAR.

-The race winner will receive 200 points. The second-place finisher will receive 175 points, and the points awarded will decrease by five for each subsequent position through 30th. Any driver who finishes 31st or worse will not receive points -- in part to cut down on drivers who are involved in a wreck, spend 50 laps in the garage and come back to ride around and get in the way in the interest of a few more points. It would also make it hard for drivers who record DNFs to record points (though prize money will not be affected).

-The 5-point bonus for leading a lap will be done away with (honestly, should a guy who leads one lap all day because he stayed out under caution receive bonus points?). Bonus points will be awarded for: leading the most laps (5), leading at halfway (5), leading 100 laps (5), leading 200 laps (5) and winning the pole (10).

EXAMPLE: Jimmie Johnson wins the pole at Dover, giving him 10 bonus points. He goes on to lead the most laps -- 274 -- en route to winning the race, though he does not lead at halfway. Johnson will get 5 points for leading the most laps, 5 points for leading 100 laps and 5 points for leading 200 laps, giving him 15 more bonus points. For the weekend, Johnson gets 25 bonus points, on top of the 200 points he gets for winning the race. Johnson's efforts net him 225 total points.

-Ideally, these changes to the points system will reward both winning and consistency. Not awarding points to drivers who finish 31st or worse helps reward consistency, while the 25-point difference between first and second place accentuates the value of winning. Bonus points for lap-leading and pole-winning serve as further incentives for drivers to go all-out through the entire weekend.

-The Top 35 qualifying rule in the Sprint Cup Series (Top 30 for the Nationwide Series) will be eliminated; in both series, the 36 fastest times will qualify, and there will be six slots for provisionals. Every team will receive five provisionals for the season, and the past champions' provisional will be available on an unlimited basis for the most recent champion who does not qualify. In the Camping World Truck Series, the top 35 speeds will qualify, with the 36th spot going to the past champions' provisional. If the provisional is not needed, the top 36 speeds will qualify.

-With the Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang establishing a presence in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR will require GM and Chevrolet to find a way to bring the Chevrolet Camaro into the series to replace the Impala. The Nationwide Series will become a pony car series, and the Impala is not a race car (hell, my grandparents have one). Neither is the Toyota Camry; if Toyota wants to continue competing in the Nationwide Series, it will have to introduce a pony car that will be built on American soil and made available to the public.

-Pony cars will eventually be introduced to the Sprint Cup Series as well, because American motorsports are based on the thrill of speed and exhilaration -- and let's face it, the Impala, Camry and Fusion do not inspire such feelings. The Sprint Cup Series car will also see a series of design changes, including a re-design of the front splitter. The new design will remove the splitter braces and curve the edges of the splitter, so they can't cut down tires. The re-designs will also look to blend the safety features of the current-generation car with the aesthetics of the last generation -- while also re-introducing brand identity to the manufacturers.

-The vehicles in the Camping World Truck Series will remain largely unchanged, though it will also see a new design to the front splitter. Much like the Sprint Cup Series car, the Camping World Trucks will remove the splitter braces and see a more rounded edge to the splitters.

-I don't necessarily hate the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but I will do away with it. All three series will run the length of their respective schedules, and the driver who has the most points at the end of the season will be the champion. However, full-time Sprint Cup drivers who run Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races will not receive points in those series.

-The Nationwide Series will have more standalone races in an attempt to take the series focus away from moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers and put it back on the young up-and-comers an driver development. Full-time Sprint Cup drivers who are in the top 35 in Sprint Cup points will be allowed to run no more than 14 Nationwide Series races in a season -- half the schedule. This limitation will also apply to Sprint Cup drivers in the Camping World Truck Series.

-Both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series schedules will be cut; the Sprint Cup schedule will be reduced from 36 points-paying races to 30, with both exhibition races remaining in place. The Nationwide Series schedule will be reduced from 35 races to 28. This will be accomplished in part by taking away dates from tracks with two dates, as well as awarding races to tracks not currently on the schedule. The Camping World Truck Series schedule will remain 25 races.

-Below are the three national touring schedules I would propose. It will be listed in Sprint Cup/Nationwide/Camping World Truck Series format, with OFF denoting an off weekend for the series. NOTE: I realize I listed tracks that NASCAR no longer runs in, but seeing as how this is entirely hypothetical, I went with it.

Budweiser Shootout at Daytona (exhibition race)/OFF/OFF
Las Vegas/Atlanta/Rockingham
Sprint All-Star Challenge at Charlotte (exhibition race)/OFF/Texas
Pocono/Milwaukee Mile/Michigan
New Hampshire/New Hampshire/OFF
Michigan/Road America/Iowa
Indianapolis/ORP/New Hampshire
Watkins Glen/Watkins Glen/Watkins Glen
Darlington/Gateway/Las Vegas
Phoenix/Nashville/North Wilkesboro

So there you have it, my ideas for "fixing" NASCAR. I'm sure some of you will love all these ideas, while others will likely hate everything I've written above. But please, feel free to leave your comments below.

Good Weekend for Point Leaders

This past weekend in NASCAR was a good one for the guys atop their respective point standings in the three national touring series -- it marked just the sixth time in history that all three point leaders won races in their respective divisions in the same season -- since 1995, when the Camping World Truck Series came into being.

Todd Bodine, who holds a 231-point lead over Aric Almirola in the Camping World Truck Series, took the Too Tough To Tame 200 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night for his third win of the season.

Brad Keselowski defended his 2009 Nationwide Series win at Michigan International Speedway, taking the Carfax 250 in dominant fashion for his fourth win of the year -- extending his points lead over Carl Edwards to 347 points in the process. His worst finish of the season is 21st, when Keselowski ran out of fuel late in Chicagoland.

And of course, Kevin Harvick took the Carfax 400 at Michigan on Sunday for his third win of the season. Harvick, who now has 30 bonus points for when the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts, holds a 293-point lead over Jeff Gordon.

This is the latest in a season that all three point leaders have won in the same weekend.

All three drivers showed this past weekend why they're the points leaders in their respective series. Bodine has been consistent throughout the season, recording 12 top-10s and 11 top-5s in 15 starts, while Keselowski is close to giving car owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship thanks to four wins, 17 top-5s and 20 top-10s in 23 starts.

Harvick has been by far the most impressive of the bunch, given how he struggled in 2009. In 23 starts this season, Harvick has 11 top-5s and 16 top-10s.

Harvick's win at Michigan was his first at a non-restrictor plate track since Phoenix in 2006, and Harvick served notice that he will be a title threat come Chase time, even if others want to make Denny Hamlin or four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson the favorite.

Bodine and Keselowski are likely to win their titles going away, barring something out of the ordinary, and Harvick would be cruising to his first title as well were it not for the Chase. But that doesn't make what this trio has accomplished -- both throughout the season and this past weekend -- any less impressive.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Changes to 2011 Chase Coming reported on Friday that Auto Club Speedway (sometimes referred to as Fontana) will lose one of its Sprint Cup Series dates for the 2011 season. This is not surprising; there's been speculation throughout the season that Fontana would lose a date -- probably in order to give Kansas Speedway a second date -- but it was widely assumed Fontana would lose its February date, not its Chase race.

But according to SPEED's report, Fontana will not be part of the 2011 Chase. Which begs the question ... who gets Fontana's second date? With some arranging, it's still possible that Kansas gets that date, but it won't be a straight swap, because Kansas is already in the Chase.

The network has also reported this week that the 2011 Chase will begin at Chicagoland Speedway, not New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which has opened the Chase every year since its 2004 inception. Instead, New Hampshire will become the second Chase race, and it's widely believed that Fontana losing its Chase race spares Dover's Chase date.

Without any other knowledge at this point, there's no telling what next season's Cup schedule will look like. That Atlanta Motor Speedway is losing a date to Kentucky Motor Speedway is not unexpected, nor is the fact that Fontana is losing a date. NASCAR CEO Brian France promised before the Brickyard 400 a couple weeks back that changes were coming to both the Chase and the schedule, but right now almost everything is speculation.

Sources tell SPEED that the 2011 Cup schedule will be released on Aug. 18.

Though SPEED's Thursday report mentioned the possibility of Martinsville Speedway losing a race (which will surely infuriate traditional fans, much like losing Rockingham and one of Darlington's dates did), there hasn't been a whole lot of rumbling about that move. Almost all the speculation this season has focused on Fontana, and rightly so -- from a racing standpoint, the track is stale, and the pathetic attendance figures have made a move almost inevitable.

Meanwhile, Martinsville has held strong from an attendance standpoint, despite its smaller grandstands and the fact that almost every track is seeing empty seats these days. If I had to guess I'd say Martinsville keeps both of its dates in 2011.

Frankly, I'm glad Fontana is losing a date -- if I had my way, we wouldn't go there at all. I understand NASCAR wants to court the southern California market, but it's clear they don't care for it. Unless you were to move the race to nearby Irwindale Speedway, which wouldn't be a bad move.

The 2011 Sprint Cup schedule will look a lot different than in recent years -- but that might not be such a bad thing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Report: Atlanta to Lose Cup Race

According to sources, Atlanta Motor Speedway will only have one Sprint Cup race as of 2011 -- its Labor Day race that serves as the second-to-last race before the Chase. Word has it that Bruton Smith, who owns Atlanta as part of his Speedway Motorsports, Inc. company, plans to take one of Atlanta's dates and give it to the recently-purchased Kentucky Speedway.

Nothing is official, and NASCAR isn't expected to release the 2011 schedule until next month, but the report isn't entirely unexpected; Smith made it clear the moment he bought Kentucky that he wanted to bring a Cup race to the track, and Atlanta has suffered attendance woes for years -- even before the recession hit.

Rows upon rows of seats near the start-finish line have been empty for several years at Atlanta. It's one thing for a track to not sell seats in Turn 3 or Turn 4, but on the frontstretch, near the start-finish line?

That looks good for no one.

Expect some NASCAR traditionalists to criticize the move and decry the sport further distancing itself from its southern roots, but the truth is more complicated. Much like the decision to leave Rockingham and take away Darlington's fall date, the move to take a race away from Atlanta amounts to ticket sales. Atlanta has struggled to sell seats for years -- like Rockingham and Darlington before it -- and the move was needed.

Attendance is down almost everywhere, that's true. But Atlanta's troubles pre-date the recession, much like Fontana's. Expect an announcement soon that Auto Club Speedway will lose one of its dates, likely going to Kansas Speedway -- a track that does not have horrible attendance problems.

Atlanta is a great track, one that has a lot of history in NASCAR. It's also considered the sport's fastest, and the racing is often pretty solid. But the ample number of empty seats proved to be the track's undoing, and in Kentucky, the Cup Series is getting a track that enjoys a good amount of support; fans have welcomed the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series and the IndyCar Series to Kentucky with open arms.

So why wouldn't they do the same for a Cup race?

Darlington had rebounded nicely since being reduced to only having one race a season. Ticket sales have been up, the Southern 500 returned and that stop on the schedule has become a crown jewel again. Other tracks have thrived on the Cup Series schedule with just one date, so there's no reason Atlanta can't do the same -- especially since it will likely keep its Labor Day slot.

But the fact remains: had Atlanta's attendance been better the past decade, it wouldn't be losing a race.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sadler's Wreck Highlights Problems

NASCAR had made tremendous strides in safety since 2001, when Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Tracks have upgraded safety features such as energy-absorbing walls, while drivers find themselves in safer cars with safer custom-built seats and head-and-neck restraints that have undoubtedly averted the tragic consequences of many a horrific crash.

Say what you want about the current generation car in the Sprint Cup Series, it's incredibly safe. In fact, it might be the only reason Elliott Sadler is still with us after the hit he took Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

ESPN didn't get a really good look at the wreck, but here's video of what the network did catch:

That Sadler walked away from the wreck, even though the engine came clear out of the car, is a testament to the safety of the car and the HANS device. The crush panels in front of the car absorbed much of the energy that would've gone to Sadler otherwise, and the six-point harness and HANS device kept Sadler largely in place even as his car bounced off the guardrail and spun back onto the track.

However, the lack of safety upgrades at Pocono was made glaringly evident for the second straight race. Kasey Kahne nearly spun over the fence along the Long Pond straightaway in the June race, resulting in a call for Pocono to install catchfencing along the outside wall -- even though there are no grandstands back there.

After Sadler's wreck, there's calling for SAFER barriers to be installed along the inside of that straightaway and for the grass to be paved over. I agree that these changes need to be made, and NASCAR must make sure they happen.

The track has already promised these changes would be made in time for next season's races, but if I'm NASCAR, I take it a step further than that. If I'm Brian France, I tell track officials that if these changes are not made, the Sprint Cup Series (and the Camping World Truck Series, which made its debut at the track on Saturday) will not be back.

Simple as that. Make the necessary safety changes, or the show stops. NASCAR cannot allow its greatest asset -- its drivers -- be put needlessly in harm's way like that. Why have all these safety innovations and not use them?

Pocono has also talked of bringing the IndyCar Series back to the track. Can you imagine an IndyCar having the same impact Sadler did on Sunday? In that instance, we're not talking about a guy who walked away. We're talking about a guy being sent to the morgue.

Motorsports are dangerous; the only way to 100 percent guarantee safety is to not run these races at all. But NASCAR has done a great job of making things safer since Earnhardt's death. Tracks have also improved safety; after Jeff Gordon hit the inside wall hard at Las Vegas in 2008, the track changed the wall configuration.

Pocono needs to do the same. Add the catchfence, add the SAFER barriers. If the track cannot do this, then it doesn't deserve to host NASCAR races.

At all.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NASCAR Punished Edwards ... and Keselowski?

NASCAR announced on Wednesday that it would punish Carl Edwards for his last-lap incident with Brad Keselowski during Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Gateway International Raceway ... and no, it's not three weeks of probation.

Edwards will be on probation again -- this time until Dec. 31 -- but NASCAR also docked him 60 driver points, fined him $25,000 and docked car owner Jack Roush 60 points in the owners' championship.

Keselowski was also placed on probation until Dec. 31.

Despite the sanctioning body's "Boys have at it" philosophy heading into the season -- which resulted in Edwards receiving just three weeks' probation after the incident at Atlanta -- NASCAR had to react in this instance. NASCAR had to draw a line, because Edwards' actions clearly went farther than the intention behind NASCAR's loosening of the proverbial reigns.

This was the second time this season that Edwards intentionally dumped Keselowski at a high-speed area of the track, then boasted about it afterward. Both times, Edwards placed others in potential danger; at Atlanta, fans were at risk when Keselowski's car went airborne, and at Gateway, the wreck eventually collected several other drivers before its conclusion.

There was some call for Edwards to be parked a week -- much like Kevin Harvick was for a Cup race in Martinsville in 2002 -- but that would've left NASCAR in an uncomfortable position given the "Boys have at it" edict handed down in January. It was the same reason Edwards' punishment for the Atlanta wreck was so light; how could NASCAR tell the drivers to police themselves, only to step in and drop the hammer when a driver did just that?

But there's "Boys have at it," and there's what Edwards did.

The points penalty is appropriate, because it essentially returns the points to how they would've stood had the wreck not occurred. Keselowski led the most laps, giving him 10 bonus points, so if he had won the race, he would've banked 195 points. His 14th-place finish netted Keselowski 131 point -- a difference of 64 points.

So Edwards gets to keep the win, and the trophy, but he loses virtually all of the points he made up in the championship. While some of the hardier Keselowski fans and everyone else offended by Edwards' move might've liked a harsher penalty, I find the deduction of points appropriate and fair.

But what of Keselowski? Aside from the rubbing in Turn 1, he's done nothing wrong in this instance -- even the Atlanta incident that led Edwards to intentionally wreck him the first time was really Edwards' fault. NASCAR's official stance is that it placed Keselowski on probation because he has a history with Edwards, but I think it's something else entirely.

Putting Keselowski on probation was more of a preventative measure than a punitive one. Probation, nebulous as it is, spans across all three of NASCAR's national touring series -- Camping World Trucks, Nationwide and Sprint Cup -- and any action in one series can affect a driver's standing in another. When Harvick was parked for the Martinsville Cup race in 2002, it was for a wreck he deliberately caused in a truck race.

Keselowski, 26th in Cup points, has nothing to lose on that side, while Edwards is fighting for a spot in the Chase. But Keselowski is the Nationwide Series points leader, so if Keselowski paid back Edwards in a Cup race, NASCAR could theoretically penalize him in the Nationwide Series. To me, putting Keselowski on probation is NASCAR's way of trying to prevent Keselowski from seeking payback.

Of course, there's nothing saying Keselowski can't dish out payback next season. Immediate payback is extremely rare in NASCAR.

NASCAR also sent a message to other drivers, many of whom have wondered just how far "Boys have at it" goes. Now those drivers know; NASCAR will embrace rubbing, bump-and-runs and spinouts in the turns. The sanctioning body probably even relishes in the post-race war of words that drivers sometimes get into (looking at you, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick).

But what this sport can't have is one driver intentionally wrecking another and putting others in danger in the process. Today's cars and tracks are safer than ever before, but there is no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to safety in racing. If a driver gets payback so aggressively, and his victim dies -- or kills someone else in the process -- what's NASCAR to do?

We can debate the severity of the penalty, but NASCAR had to issue one. There was no way around this.