Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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.