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.