Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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.

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