Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, July 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.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Edwards-Keselowski, Round ... I've Lost Count

When NASCAR placed Carl Edwards on three races' probation after his late-race incident with Brad Keselowski in the Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta, everyone assumed whatever beef the two drivers had with each other was over.

But after the end of Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Gateway International Raceway, in which Edwards turned Keselowski head-on into the fence on the frontstretch coming to the checkered flag, the rivalry has begun anew. Keselowski, the series point leader, had the dominant car, though Edwards was strong and held the high line on the green-white checkered restart.

That high line gave Edwards the lead, and heading into Turn 1 on the final lap, Keselowski tapped Edwards in the left rear. Edwards broke loose, but gathered his car and actually held the lead going down the backstretch. Keselowski grabbed the advantage in turns 3 and 4, only to have Edwards hook into Keselowski's right rear and send him into the wall.

Keselowski slammed the outside wall head-on, before coming down and hitting head-on into the inside wall. As his car came to stop, Shelby Howard plowed into the front of Keselowski's car, spinning him around and pushing him across the finish line.

Keselowski was unhurt, and Edwards went on to win his second Nationwide race of the season.

Much like the Atlanta incident, Edwards didn't shy away from taking the blame.

"I just couldn't let him take the win from me," Edwards said. "We came to win. He took it from us there in Turn 1. And, man, I just couldn't let him take it from us. I had to do what I had to do.

"The deal is he'll eventually learn he can't run into my car over and over and put me in bad situations. In every situation, there is an aggressor and there is someone who reacts. I was not the aggressor in this situation."

Never mind the fact that Keselowski led the most laps, by far, and that nothing is given to anyone on the last lap of the race. Keselowski's move heading into Turn 1 was a typical move in stock car racing: get into the guy's quaterpanel, move him out of the way and make the pass.

Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson demonstrated the maneuver perfectly in the closing laps of the Cup race at Loudon, N.H. The below video perfectly displays NASCAR's new "Boys, have at it" meme:

Notice how almost every time Edwards and Keselowski have an incident, the contact is Edwards' fault. Dating back to the April 2009 Sprint Cup race at Talladega, where contact sent Edwards into the catchfence and injured seven fans. Edwards came down in an attempt to block Keselowski, who was holding his ground on the yellow line. Coming to the checkers, Keselowski wasn't about to lift, and he couldn't dive below the yellow line, lest NASCAR penalize him the way it did Regan Smith in 2008.

Then there's the incident at Atlanta. Edwards was retaliating for an incident that occurred in Turn 1 much earlier in the race, where Keselowski was on the inside. Keselowski and Edwards made contact, sending Edwards up the track and into Joey Logano. Replays showed -- and Edwards confirmed in his first interview -- that he initiated the contact by coming down on Keselowski.

Fast-forward to the end of Saturday night's race, and ... yeah.

The only incident between the two that Edwards has any legitimate beef over is one last season during a Nationwide race in Memphis, where Keselowski dumped Edwards on the backstretch. But let's be serious here: if Edwards is still dishing out payback for that incident, we might have some insight as to why Edwards hasn't won a Cup race since 2008. He might need anger management and a deeper examination of priorities.

Edwards' actions behind the wheel, and his cavalier attitude of "Yeah, I did it, so what?" is doing him little favors in terms of his image and his fan base. There are those who see nothing wrong with what Edwards has done, calling it "Boys, have at it" -- and argument bolstered by the fact that NASCAR only gave Edwards three weeks' probation after the Atlanta incident.

If you know what probation means in NASCAR, by all means, tell me.

But Edwards has proven, yet again, how dangerous he can on the track. Not just to Keselowski, either; in the aftermath of Saturday's incident, at least 10 other cars suffered considerable damage. What if something had happened to them. Edwards likes to say he doesn't mean for his payback to get so messy, but it always does.

He has to be held responsible for that.

But also consider:

-The Big One that marred the October 2008 Cup race at Talladega, taking out almost all the Chase contenders, started because Edwards tried to bump-draft teammate Greg Biffle into Turn 3. Kevin Harvick was among those expressing their displeasure at Edwards.

-Edwards also caused the wreck that sent Dale Earnhardt Jr. upside down at the Nationwide race at Daytona this past February. Edwards got into -- guess who -- Keselowski, sending him into Junior's car.

-After Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a Nationwide Series race at Michigan in 2006, Edwards chose to express his displeasure by ramming into the side of Junior's car on the cool-down lap, almost taking off Junior's hand. Edwards then confronted Junior in Victory Lane, something I don't remember seeing in all my years of watching NASCAR.

-Remember Edwards' divebomb move at the end of the 2008 race at Kansas? You know, where he drove deep into Turn 3 and passed leader Jimmie Johnson before drifting up into the wall and finishing second? Yeah, it looked cool and all, but what if Edwards misjudges, and he collects Johnson on the way to the wall?

-Edwards almost got into a fight with teammate (yes, teammate!) Matt Kenseth after a race at Martinsville. When you're balling up fists at your teammates, you've got issues.

-Edwards even dumped Keselowski's Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch at the end of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona two weeks back. Apparently, Edwards has a big problem with Penske ... just don't ask me what.

Edwards has worked hard to present himself as a nice, aw-shucks kind of guy that NASCAR fans can look up to every Sunday, but his actions behind the wheel -- which at times smack of desperation and frustration -- seem to point to something else. Some will jokingly refer to this as "roid rage," given Edwards' chiseled physique, and it might well be, but I really don't know.

All I know is, Edwards keeps punching the karma button, and it's only a matter of time before karma visits him to collect payment. It might come in the form of contact with Keselowski, or someone else might decide to take matters into their own hands. But if Edwards isn't careful -- and examining the evidence above, since when has he been careful? -- things are going to go very wrong, very fast.

Like Keselowski said Saturday night, wrecking on the straightaway is never cool, whether you're going 200 or 120 MPH.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

No. 3 Wins Again

When Austin Dillon picked up his first career Camping World Truck Series win on Sunday in the Lucas Oil 200 at Iowa Speedway, he gave truck owner and grandfather Richard Childress yet another win for the No. 3.

It was the second time in as many weeks that number found Victory Lane in one of NASCAR's three national series; on July 2, Dale Earnhardt Jr. piloted a special No. 3 blue and yellow Wrangler paint scheme to victory in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona. Junior was adamant afterward that he would never run the number his late father made famous again, but Dillon runs the number full-time in the Truck Series.

Not only that, but Dillon runs the black No. 3.

His truck isn't sponsored by GM Goodwrench -- that honor goes to Bass Pro Shops, which means a little camouflage is mixed in with the trademark black -- but to see a black No. 3 back on the track in one of the national touring series has to be a big deal. Dillon understands the importance of the number, but he seems to enjoy running the number.

Dillon is seventh in points after 10 races, having won three straight poles. In picking up that first win on Sunday in Iowa, Dillon led 187 of 205 laps. He may not have intimidated the field, but Dillon certainly dominated it.

Dillon has run the No. 3 throughout his career, and assuming he makes it all the way to the Sprint Cup Series -- and also assuming he keeps driving for Childress -- there is some question, and debate, as to whether he should bring the number with him. NASCAR does not retire numbers; ultimately, the fate of the No. 3 rests with Childress, who still owns the number.

The number has not been in the Cup Series since Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Since, the Intimidator's car has sported the No. 29 with Kevin Harvick behind the wheel, and it's seen a litany of paint schemes. White, black and silver, now red and yellow ... Childress has been careful not to bring the paint scheme or the number back to the series.

Emotionally, it's easy to say that Childress should never run that number in the Cup Series again. Running a No. 3 in either the Truck Series or Nationwide Series is seen as okay, because they are lower-level series and it can be seen as an appropriate tribute to a NASCAR legend.

A lot of people would love to see the black No. 3 back in the Cup Series -- some want Junior to drive it (as if he doesn't have enough pressure to deal with), while a lot of other fans would just as soon never see that car again. Either it's too painful to see that car with another driver in it, or fans think it wouldn't be appropriate.

Other legends have driven the No. 3 before Senior -- Junior Johnson and David Pearson among them -- but to many NASCAR fans, that number will always be synonymous with the late Dale Earnhardt. And I'm fine with that.

Honestly, I like Dillon. He seems like a good kid, he's obviously got a wealth of driving ability and he doesn't seem burdened by the legacy painted onto the side of his car. It helps that he doesn't share the Earnhardt name, and that he was in middle school when Senior died, but Dillon genuinely seems to enjoy running that number.

So as far as I'm concerned, Childress should let Dillon run that number as long as he wants. If that means bringing it back to the Cup Series in a couple years, then so be it. Who know? Dillon might be able to make it his own, just like Senior did.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Junior Gets Emotional Win; Is He Back?

I realize I'm a little late with this -- talking about Daytona when we're already at Chicagoland for this weekend's races -- but the story here has been big enough that it still warrants discussion.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeño 250 last Friday night at Daytona International Speedway. Anytime Junior wins a race -- he hadn't done that since Michigan in 2008 -- it's a big deal, but the win at Daytona was large because of the car Junior was driving: a replica of the Wrangler Jeans No. 3 his father made famous in the 1980s.

That's right, thanks to a deal coming together in part between JR Motorsports, Richard Childress and Teresa Earnhardt, Junior paid homage to his late father and celebrated his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

And he took the car to Victory Lane.

It's impossible to overstate how much it means to NASCAR and its fans to see the No. 3 back in Victory Lane -- especially at Daytona. The sport just hasn't been the same since Junior's father was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, and any time we can relive Senior's glory -- and watch his favorite son win in the process -- it's a cause for celebration.

Not only that, but it was the latest bit of good news for Junior. After a disastrous May, Junior has four straight finishes of 11th or better in the Sprint Cup Series; after finishing seventh in Michigan, he salvaged 11th at Infineon, finished eighth at New Hampshire, and on Saturday, he dodged all the wrecks to finish fourth in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

Junior wasn't happy about that finish, saying his car was terrible all night and they lucked into that finish. But seeing as how Junior is 11th in points and in Chase contention, it's probably something he should happily take into Chicagoland and look for another good run.

Junior won at Chicagoland in 2005.

The No. 88 team probably isn't where it needs to be right now for Junior to win races and be a true title contender, but if the last month is any indication, he's getting his confidence back, and after a disastrous 2009, maybe simply running well and making the Chase -- and yes, getting some luck along the way -- is what Junior needs.

NASCAR benefits when Junior is running well -- as the sport's Most Popular Driver, that just makes sense. If Junior can keep doing what he's doing of late, and qualify for the Chase, that gives him and the rest of the team momentum and confidence heading into the 2011 season.

For a sport struggling with television ratings and on-track attendance, a successful Junior would be good news for everyone.