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 17, 2011

A Brutal, Devastating Reminder

I have a saying I've repeated off-and-on over the last couple years: auto racing will never be 100 percent safe. The only way to ensure total safety in racing is to never get involved in it; never climb into a car, never pick up a wrench, never sit in the grandstands.

Safety in motorsports is a relative term; we can make motorsports safer, but we'll never make them safe. Ever. No energy-absorbing wall or crush-panel-lined car or stiffest head-and-neck-restraint device will ever fully protect drivers and those around them.

Sunday gave us all another painful reminder.

Dan Wheldon, two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500, was killed Sunday when he was involved in a scary, 15-car wreck early in the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I won't provide a link to video or other images of the crash; if you want to see the wreck, you're on your own.

Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 again this past May after J.R. Hildebrand hit the Turn 4 wall on the last lap, was the 2005 IndyCar Series champion, and his 16 IndyCar wins are the fourth-most all-time. By all accounts, Wheldon was a pleasant man with a terrific family who everyone loved.

Now, the very sport he and those closest to him loved has taken him from us.

Wheldon knew the risks; he knew them every time he slipped into the cockpit. Every driver understands the risk involved, even if no one ever talks about it. Safety in motorsports is for other people -- the engineers and scientists, the sanctioning bodies responsible for putting on these races -- to figure out. Just tell the drivers the rules, and they'll follow along.

Part of auto racing's appeal is defying death. We watch these daredevils barrel into the turn at over 200 mph (or down the drag strip at almost 400 mph), not to watch them die, but to see them come out the other side as fit and healthy as they were before. There's a fine line between in-control and out-of-control in auto racing, and watching the drivers and teams straddle that line is part of the appeal.

The safety strides made in NASCAR -- and in other forms of motorsports -- over the past decade have been wonderful, and they're a large reason why we don't see more fatalities than we do. NASCAR hasn't had one on the national level since Dale Earnhardt in 2001; IndyCar's last fatality before Sunday was Paul Dana at Homestead in 2006. Aryton Senna was Formula One's last on-track fatality in 1994.

SAFER barriers, HANS devices, roof flaps, a new-generation NASCAR chassis with crush panels, a more centered driver's compartment and fire-extinguishing system attached to the fuel cell ... all of these innovations have helped. There will always be more work to do when it comes to making auto racing safer, but tremendous strides have been made.

Wheldon got airborne Sunday, as IndyCars so often do. His car erupted in flames, as did several others (Pippa Mann was being treated at a Las Vegas hospital after suffering a burn on her right hand). What I think sealed Wheldon's fate, though, was the fact that he hit the catchfence cockpit-first.

Carl Edwards also hit the catchfence cockpit-first in his Talladega wreck back in 2009, but unlike Wheldon, Edwards had a roof and a roll cage to protect him. Wheldon only had his helmet, exposing dangers specific to open-wheel racing.

IndyCar has been developing a new-generation race car to debut next season, a car that, among other things, is expected to be safer; ironically, Wheldon --who on Sunday morning signed a multi-year contract to replace Danica Patrick in the No. 7 car next season -- was the test driver the series used in developing the car.

Perhaps that is Wheldon's legacy, to leave the IZOD IndyCar Series safer than it was during his career. It's sad that Wheldon will never get to see his work come to fruition, but that's the way it goes, isn't it? The truly legendary and visionary among us never live long enough to see their efforts pay off.

NASCAR is fortunate that Jimmie Johnson emerged from his head-on wreck Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway without anything more than a limp and some soreness the next day. The safety advances are likely responsible for his impact not being more severe.

Still, Johnson is fortunate he walked away -- just like Elliott Sadler was fortunate after his Pocono wreck last season, just like David Ragan, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin were after their respective accidents earlier this year at Watkins Glen.

Don't let the safety advancements we've seen over the years lull you into a false sense of security; the specter of death, or serious injury, is always there.

Wheldon's death serves as another stark reminder: as long as men and women slip on helmets and climb into race cars -- of any sort -- the possibility of tragedy is ever-present. The day death stops being a part of auto racing is the day there is no more auto racing.

No matter what form of motorsports you follow -- whether you have a clear preference or you follow anything with a motor -- a death on the track is always shocking and heartbreaking. It strikes me how shocking a driver's death is, even though we're always mindful of the potential and understand the risk; we know it can happen, but it's still a punch in the gut when it does.

The world of motorsports, not just IndyCar, is in mourning right now. Important questions need to be answered -- like whether IndyCars should be running on high-speed 1.5-mile ovals -- but this is not the time. Those debates can wait for another day.

Right now, let's remember Dan Wheldon for everything he did on the track, and how his passing affects us all off of it.

And let us never forget just how dangerous this sport we love truly is.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patrick To Make It Official

ESPN's Marty Smith reported on Wednesday that IndyCar star Danica Patrick will officially announce her intentions to enter NASCAR full-time next week. Patrick will run the entire Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports next season, while running a handful of Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing -- before making the full jump to Cup in 2013.

Frankly, it's about time.

I didn't have an opinion one way or another about whether Patrick should come to NASCAR or stay in the IZOD IndyCar Series -- where she has one career win and is easily the most recognizable name in the series. Her departure will leave IndyCar with some issues (more than it already faces, given the finish to last weekend's race at Loudon, N.H.), but the most important thing here is the fact that she's finally made a decision.

Patrick is the middle of her second season of running a full IndyCar schedule for Andretti Autosport, while running a part-time Nationwide Series schedule in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 7 car. She finished a career-best fourth at Las Vegas in March, and Patrick led several laps in Daytona in July, threatening for the win before being caught in a last-lap wreck and finishing 10th.

I've said before she needs to choose, because jumping back and forth between two completely different race cars throughout a season did her no favors -- in either series. A stock car and an open-wheel car are completely different creatures, and hopping between them can make it hard for Patrick to get a rhythm in either series.

By making her choice, Patrick is removing one of her biggest hurdles to success. She's also making a choice that could improve her career.

Make no mistake: this is not a money move. Patrick is set for life already, and she was going to the bank regardless of where she strapped on a helmet -- you can thank such companies as Motorola and for that. She'll make a mint in NASCAR, especially if she succeeds, but that's not the driving force here.

Obviously, Patrick enjoys running stock cars. She enjoys rubbing fenders and mixing it up on the track -- something she can't do in an IndyCar. She's also not much of a road racer, and with the IndyCar Series migrating more and more toward road and street courses, it's no longer really the place for her.

The Nationwide Series only had three road courses on the schedule this season, and will likely have two or three next season -- leaving plenty of oval-track action for her to experience.

Results are also indisputable; Patrick's 2011 NASCAR experience has been much more successful so far than her 2010 foray. She's clearly more comfortable in a stock car than she was in the beginning, and it'll be interesting to see how she progresses as she gets an entire season under her belt (while also seeing just how much of a grind the NASCAR season is -- it's about twice as long as the IndyCar slate).

And if I'm being honest, the attention for NASCAR will be a win-win. Regardless of how one feels about Patrick as a race car driver, there's little doubt regarding her national appeal and the fact that she draws attention to whatever series in which she's competing. You don't think NASCAR is salivating at the thought of her fighting for a Nationwide Series championship next year?

In the end, this could be a good move for Patrick -- especially since she's willing to spend a full year in the Nationwide Series before making the plunge into the Cup Series. Previous open-wheel drivers to make the transition to NASCAR -- Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, all with far better records than Patrick -- did not make that step, and it showed in their results.

Patrick could be a success in NASCAR. IndyCar without her? Well, that might be a different story.

Special Comment: Safety First -- Always

There's no question NASCAR has made significant strides in driver safety in the past decade. Following a slew of fatalities in 2000 and 2001 -- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt -- NASCAR finally took seriously the sort of safety measures that other forms of racing had long ago adopted.

Full-face helmets became mandatory, as did head-and-neck restraint devices (commonly known as the HANS device). Over the course of several years, most tracks on the NASCAR circuit implemented SAFER barriers, energy-absorbing walls meant to divert force of an impact away from the driver.

Even the new-generation car in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series was designed primarily with safety in mind.

First, the good news: no driver has lost his or her life in a NASCAR national touring series race since Earnhardt in February 2001. But while there's no bad news, the reality remains: there is still work to be done.

Just ask David Ragan, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin.

Or Brad Keselowski, for that matter.

Ignoring Keselowski for a moment (since the track where he was injured is not a NASCAR-sanctioned facility), consider the plights of Hamlin, Ragan and Reutimann this past Monday at Watkins Glen International.

Hamlin suffered a brake failure heading into the first turn in Monday's race, a hard right-hander following a lengthy straightaway. Barreling through the paved run-off area, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota slammed head-on into the guardrail, softened only by stacks of tires. Behind the guardrail stood a concrete post and a mound of dirt similar to what we used to see along the Long Pond straightaway at Pocono.

Video of the brutal hit:

Hamlin credited the safety features within the car, as well as a new seven-point seat belt he'd been wearing, for the fact that he walked away from the wreck. The tire barrier also helped, and the guardrail did give under the force of the collision, but wouldn't Hamlin have been better served to crash head-first into a SAFER barrier?

On the last lap, Ragan and Reutimann were involved in a violent crash along the esses. Ragan was tapped by Boris Said and spun head-on into a guardrail jutting out at an awkward angle -- with no tire barrier. Ragan shot back across the track, collecting Reutimann and sending him head-on into another guardrail at a bad angle.

The force of that impact sent Reutimann upside down, shot him back across the track and into another guardrail. Both Ragan and Reutimann emerged from their vehicles, sore but uninjured, but Reutimann's firesuit suffered a tear in the left leg.

Video of that incident:

Watkins Glen should investigate the possibility of adding SAFER barriers at all of the above positions. Not only that, the track should look into the awkward angle its walls take in places where openings are available for safety vehicles to get onto the track. There has to be a way for safety vehicles to get onto the track, while not leaving drivers vulnerable to the kinds of impacts Ragan and Reutimann suffered.

Las Vegas and Richmond have each had that issue, and both tracks have addressed it. Other tracks have added SAFER barriers over the years where there had previously been none. Safety is a constantly-moving target, and NASCAR (as well as other racing series) must be ever-vigilant.

It's easy to look at the above incidents and call them freak accidents, things that would likely never happen again. That might be true, but auto racing is so unpredictable, by its very nature, that one can never assume something will never happen. NASCAR and the tracks it races on must be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to ensuring the safety of its competitors and fans.

Look, auto racing will never be 100 percent safe; the only way to ensure 100 percent safety is to never climb into a race car in the first place. But there is always work to be done to make the sport safer than it was last year, last month, last week.

Monday's race highlighted some safety vulnerabilities at Watkins Glen, and if the track hopes to continue hosting NASCAR's top two national series, it must address those concerns before next year's races. If the concerns are not properly addressed, then NASCAR should stop going to that track.

Ragan, Reutimann and Hamlin are still with us and will race this weekend at Michigan thanks to the safety advancements made over the past decade. That's worthy of praise, but as Monday's race showed us, we're not where we need to be.

Not even close.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Almost There

With four races to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- and all three national touring series more than halfway through their respective seasons -- a smattering of thoughts and observations as we head down the stretch.

Road Warrior: Conventional wisdom says the racing gods owed Marcos Ambrose one after he lost the Sprint Cup race at Infineon Raceway. While picking up his first career Cup win on Monday at Watkins Glen makes for a nice story -- it makes Ambrose eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown and puts him in the Chase wild card conversation -- I have trouble buying into the karma angle.

Ambrose wasn't robbed at Sonoma last season; he made a mistake trying to save fuel under caution and cost himself the win. There's no racing gods or a track owing him anything in that instance; Ambrose made the mistake of cutting off his engine while heading uphill and the car wouldn't re-fire.

Ambrose screwed up that day. On Monday, Kyle Busch screwed up on the green-white-checkered restart. Ambrose and Brad Keselowski pounced, and by the time the caution came out on the last lap for all manner of chaos, Ambrose was out front.

The former V8 Supercar champion (side note: catch a V8 Supercar race on Speed if you can -- it's really entertaining stuff) has proven to be one of the more likable personalities in the Cup garage, and he's proven time and again his proficiency on the road courses. Prior to Monday, Ambrose was a three-time winner at Watkins Glen in the Nationwide Series, and he has also been strong at Sonoma and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

Now, he's a Cup Series winner.

Don't simply write Ambrose off as a road course specialist, either; he's proven more than competitive on several oval tracks in his short NASCAR career. Bristol is one of his best tracks, and he's proven competitive at Atlanta and Charlotte. His Richard Petty Motorsports team has shown flashes of brilliance this season, and lets be honest: seeing a Petty team in Victory Lane is often cause to celebrate.

Ambrose deserved to win Monday's race, because he was fast and did everything he needed to do at the end. But let's not act like the cosmic scales are balanced because of what happened at Sonoma last season.

Tough as Nails: When Brad Keselowski broke his left ankle and suffered other injuries during a testing crash at Road Atlanta a week and a half ago -- where his brakes failed and he hit a concrete wall at over 100 mph -- there was a lot of speculation about how he would fare at Pocono and Watkins Glen, two tracks notorious for hard braking and shifting.

His Chase chances, already slim, would take another hit, everyone said. Keselowski would be lucky just to finish either race, they pontificated. At the time, it seemed like a smart thought: as a left-foot braker, Keselowski would be at a disadvantage at both tracks -- and that's not even taking into account how sore his lower back was.

Well, he won Pocono ... then finished second at Watkins Glen.

In the past three races, Keselowski has gone from 23rd to 14th in points, and his Pocono win gives him two for the season. If the Chase started this weekend, Keselowski would be the first wild-card driver.

Drivers excelling while hurt is nothing new; I remember the late Dale Earnhardt setting a track record at Watkins Glen one year while driving one-handed because of a broken collar bone. Terry Labonte wrapped up the 1996 championship while driving with a broken wrist. Ricky Rudd once won at Martinsville despite severely burning his back.

How Keselowski managed to excel the past two weeks is almost beyond me; I think he's proven to the NASCAR community that he can succeed as a Cup driver -- and if we're being honest, there have been times earlier this season where that was in question.

Even if Keselowski makes the Chase this year -- which I think he will -- I don't see him contending for the title. But don't count him out next season.

He Said, Said Said: I find the scuffle between Boris Said and Greg Biffle following Monday's race incredibly laughable and pointless -- mostly because Said shows up so infrequently in the Cup Series that there's really no point in getting into it with him.

Honestly, Said shows up maybe twice a year -- Sonoma and Watkins Glen -- so why would a full-time Cup driver spend so much energy and anger on him, even if he is responsible for a vicious wreck at the end of Monday's race (more on that in a later post)?

Biffle reportedly punched Said through the window of his car after the race, before Said emerged from the car and had to be restrained by several people. Then Said went on ESPN to call Biffle a scaredy-cat and promise a fist sandwich in the future. Biffle took to Twitter (... really?) to blame Said for the wreck that shook up Biffle's Roush teammate David Ragan.

Considering we probably won't see Said at a Cup track until next summer, I really don't see the point in all this. It's not like Said will be at Michigan next week, or in Bristol in two weeks, or Richmond next month. We likely won't see the road specialist until Sonoma next season, so I find it really odd that he and Biffle are this animated.

Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson think they should cool it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Truck and Nationwide Highlights: Nashville

With the Sprint Cup Series enjoying its final off weekend of the season, the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series took center stage at Nashville Superspeedway this past Friday and Saturday.

Dillon Making a Charge: Austin Dillon, one of the preseason favorites to win the Camping World Truck Series title this season (and my pick) had a slow start to the season with a 20th-place effort at Daytona, but has started to turn it up of late. After finishing second to Matt Crafton at Iowa, Dillon picked up his first win of the season Friday night at Nashville.

The win was coming -- on top of his strong finish at Iowa, Dillon had a potential winning truck at Kentucky. On top of that, Dillon has started every race in the top five this season outside of a 17th-place qualifying effort at Dover. Qualifying up front makes running these races easier, especially considering how short races in this series usually are.

Dillon rides momentum into Lucas Oil Raceway this weekend and into the second half of the season, and he appears to be the only driver capable of keeping up with, and running down, points leader Johnny Sauter. Sauter has been the model of consistency this season -- he finished second to Dillon on Friday, minimizing his loss in the points -- so Dillon will likely need to keep up his recent pace to catch him.

Still, with 13 races left, Sauter's 18-point lead over Dillon is nowhere near safe.

Stenhouse Continues to Grow: The disappointment on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s face following Saturday night's Nationwide Series race was palpable. He didn't really care that he'd moved up to second in the points, five behind leader Reed Sorenson; he was too busy lamenting the fact that he finished second to winner Carl Edwards.

Stenhouse, who picked up his first career win at Iowa earlier this season, has shown tremendous growth and speed so far this season -- as evidenced by his finishes and his standing in the points. But more than anything, his disappointment Saturday night spoke volumes. Sure, he lost the race to a teammate (and, surprise, a Cup driver), but you can tell how badly Stenhouse wants to win -- which is impressive, considering the struggles he had a year ago.

Stenhouse has to be considered a co-favorite for the title, along with Stenhouse and Elliott Sadler (who lost the points lead after breaking a rear gear late in the race. Though Sorenson also has a win this season (at Road America), no Nationwide Series regular has shown the speed and the consistent ability to run with the Cup drivers like Stenhouse.

Were it not for the Cup drivers, Stenhouse might have three or four wins by now. As it stands, I think he's been the class for the Nationwide Series field this season, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he hoisted the trophy at Homestead in November.

A Bad Move: I realize I'm a bit late weighing in on the Nationwide Series moving from Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly O'Reilly Raceway Park, formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) next season to race instead at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the same weekend at the Brickyard 400, but since Indy is the next stop for the Cup Series, now seems like a good time to mention it.

I hate this move. No two ways about it.

I'm the last person to gripe about tracks losing dates (I was bummed when Rockingham lost its dates, but I understood why), but I think NASCAR's decision to run the Nationwide Series at the Brickyard is wrong for a couple of reasons.

It's clear fans are growing weary of stock cars at IMS. The answer to this problem is not more stock cars at IMS. Attendance for the Brickyard 400 was emebarrassingly small last season; yeah, 140,000 fans sounds really good, but when your track can hold as many as 300,000 fans, it's a problem.

Between long stretches of single-file racing and the 2008 tire debacle, I'm beginning to wonder if the Brickyard has worn out its NASCAR welcome. Somehow, I don't think adding the Nationwide Series is going to change things all that much.

As much as I love the Brickyard, let's be honest; NASCAR at the 2.5-mile rectangle isn't the most exciting show in the world. Do we really think the Nationwide Series will produce a better race? It certainly won't put on a better show than it does at the short track now known as Lucas Oil Raceway.

The Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races at LOR are among the most anticipated and action-packed of the season. Whereas most races in those series struggle to sell tickets, LOR never seems to have attendance problems. The reason is simple: fans love the close-quarters racing.

We need more short tracks in NASCAR, not less.

No offense to the Nationwide Series or its drivers, but letting NASCAR's "Triple A" series run on the historic track takes away some of the mystique. Does winning at the Brickyard really mean all that much if a Cup driver can just drop down and steal a win? Because let's face it; that's exactly what's going to happen.

So enjoy the races at LOR this weekend as much as you can, because as of next season, they won't be around anymore. Which is a damn shame, because that's some of the best racing we'll see all year. Instead, we'll get more single-file parades around IMS, and Kyle Busch will probably steal another win that everyone will try to make us think means more than it really does.

NASCAR really dropped the ball on this one. Big time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Post-New Hampshire Musings

A gathering of thoughts and opinions as we head into the final off-week of the Sprint Cup season:

An Awesome Promotion: I remember, when NASCAR's top division was still called the Winston Cup Series, such promotions as the Winston Million and the Winston No Bull 5 -- programs designed to give drivers the chance at $1 million if they won select races. They were cool ideas that emphasized winning and gave both sponsor R.J. Reynolds and NASCAR an extra bit of exposure.

Since entering the sport in 2004, Sprint has created no such program ... until now.

NASCAR and Sprint announced in Loudon, N.H. on Sunday the Sprint Summer Showdown, which would have a combined $3 million payout after the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway over Labor Day weekend. Winners of the next five Sprint Cup races -- at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol -- will go into the Atlanta race eligible for the money.

If a driver who won any of those five races also wins at Atlanta, the driver will win $1 million for himself, $1 million for his charity of choice and $1 million for a fan.

Fans can enter here.

Given NASCAR's increased emphasis on winning -- using wins as Chase seeding, offering the final two Chase spots as wild card spots based on wins, giving three bonus points to the driver who wins a race -- this promotion fits the bill. It also increases interest by getting charities and fans involved, and the Sprint Summer Showdown has the potential to make the traditional summer lull more exciting.

All around, I think this is a great move for the sport.

A Made-Up Number: A lot has been made of the fact that Kyle Busch has won 100 combined races between the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series. Frankly, it's all contrived bullshit.

Tell me: before Busch came along, when have we ever lumped together a driver's wins among all the national NASCAR touring series? Never. We talk about David Pearson's 105 Cup wins, not the fact that he's got 106 total wins if you count his Bristol Nationwide Series win from 1982. What about Darrell Waltrip (84 Cup wins, 13 Nationwide wins = 97 total) or the late Dale Earnhardt (76 Cup wins, 21 Nationwid wins = 97 total)?

Or Mark Martin, who has 96 total wins between the three national series?

No, we don't do that with them. We mention Earnhardt and Waltrip as Cup legends; when we talk about Martin, we mention how, until this past weekend, he was the all-time Nationwide Series wins leader ... or we talk about his 40 Cup wins. Not both.

I used to think Busch's 100-win "milestone" was a media-driven thing ... until Busch paraded around with a flag with the number 100 on it, then signed a billboard in Victory Lane commemorating win 100. Oh, and there are shirts for sale commemorating win No. 100.

Look, if you wanna make a big deal of the fact that Busch has tied Martin in Nationwide Series wins, that's fine. It's an impressive achievement, especially when you consider how quickly Busch tied the mark. His 22 Sprint Cup wins at the age of 26 are also impressive.

But lumping all his wins into one category and placing his name on the same list as Pearson and Richard Petty? That's a stretch -- to put it politely.

Wonders Never Cease: Remember before the start of the season, when I said Matt Crafton wasn't a legitimate title contender in the Camping World Truck Series because he couldn't win races?


Crafton held off Austin Dillon for his second career win Saturday night at Iowa Speedway, vaulting the driver of the No. 88 to fifth in points, 44 behind leader Johnny Sauter. Crafton has six top-10s in 11 starts this season, and the win could catapult him back into title contention -- especially since no one seems to be dominating.

Don't let Sauter's 22-point lead over Dillon fool you; no one is running away with this championship as we near the halfway point of the season. Things are just as open heading into Nashville this weekend as they were in the season opener at Daytona.

And if Crafton can become a consistent Victory Lane threat? Then I may just be willing to eat some crow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Special Comment: Completely Unacceptable

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series debut at Kentucky Speedway was a travesty. Not because Kyle Busch picked up his third win of the season, and not because the field strung out and we saw a lot of single-file racing.

Because as many as 20,000 fans -- with tickets -- never saw a lap.

Seeing as how I follow most of the NASCAR media contingent on Twitter, it became clear to me early on Saturday that traffic surrounding Kentucky Speedway would be a problem. Tales of back-ups on Interstate 71 -- the main road leading to the track -- were rampant, and driver Denny Hamlin even tweeted that he might miss the drivers' meeting because of the traffic.

Ultimately, many fans (who left as many as six or seven hours prior) got to the track and parked after the green flag dropped around 7:45 p.m. Even more fans never found a place to park, and were turned away by track security and Kentucky State Police around halfway as the track started planning exit routes for the post-race traffic.

Still more fans became so frustrated while sitting in traffic that they turned around and went home, giving up on seeing the first Cup race at a track that had clamored for one since it opened in 2000.

Think about that: you pour an untold amount of money into buying tickets for a Cup race (which may or may not include hotel room, meal money and gas fare). Then you spend the day on the road, nervous with anticipation for the race ... only to turn around and head home without ever seeing a lap.

Imagine if that was to be your first-ever Cup race, too. My first Cup race was to be the fall race at Martinsville in 2001, but it rained and I couldn't go back on Monday. So I missed my first Cup race, but that pales in comparison to this. You can't control Mother Nature; the debacle at Kentucky was avoidable.

Track owner Bruton Smith added 40,000 seats to bump the track's capacity to 107,000, then he took a date away from Atlanta Motor Speedway. But Smith and his Kentucky Speedway employees never once thought about accounting for the heavy traffic, or the port-a-potties in the parking lots, or the bathrooms and concession stands in the grandstands.

Oh, fans couldn't bring coolers into the stands, either.

I-71 backups stretching more than 10 miles in length three hours before the start of the race are unacceptable -- but not nearly as unacceptable as the track's response. The track released two statements -- one during Saturday night's race and another on Sunday -- but neither one offered an apology.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is expected to announce on Monday a deal for fans turned away at Kentucky. Talladega Superspeedway issued a scathing statement on Sunday reminding fans that the Alabama track "knows how to put on a race weekend."

Look, I've attended anywhere from three to five races a year for the last 10 years; I understand that, to some degree, traffic is always going to be an issue. When you have anywhere from 60,000-150,000 people entering and leaving a place at the same time, there are going to be backups.

But in my experiences at Richmond, Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona and Dover, I've never found traffic so bad that I got to the track late ... or turned around to come home ... or got turned away with ticket in-hand because of a lack of parking. And every time there was an issue of any sort at the tracks I mentioned, it was almost always resolved the next time I visited.

Those tracks listen to their fans; will Kentucky? More importantly, will NASCAR make Kentucky listen? If I'm NASCAR, I make it abundantly clear to Smith and his track that if things aren't improved dramatically for the 2012 race, the track will no longer host a Cup Series race.

Heck, I'd threaten to take away the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, too. Call it punishing the fans if you want, but if the track can't handle that influx of people, if it can't take care of the fans, then the track doesn't deserve to be hosting nationally-sanctioned NASCAR races.

This whole episode was pathetic. Inexcusable. Unacceptable.

The fans are the life-blood of racing. Without the fans, there are no races. People accuse NASCAR of a lot of things, but I've never bought the fact that NASCAR -- and the tracks -- doesn't care about the fans.

I've heard of fans who have already decided to never attend another race at Kentucky. That's not something to be dismissed or taken lightly. Kentucky Speedway has to make it right to the 20,000 fans who paid for a ticket but never saw a lap -- I say a full refund and/or a free ticket to next year's race.

Hell, I'd throw in a $25 gas card for all the gas fans burned sitting in traffic.

I'd also make it right to the fans who did show: more port-a-potties in the parking lots, more parking spaces, more camping spaces, better concession stands, better in-track bathrooms. In conjunction with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I'd make the traffic situation more bearable by adding roads leading into and out of the facility.

Don't tell me the track's rural location makes that a challenge, either; both Bristol and Martinsville are "middle-of-nowhere" tracks, and they don't have nearly the traffic issues Kentucky experienced.

This debacle was a black eye, both for Kentucky Speedway and for NASCAR. Even if NASCAR ultimately had nothing to do with this (the tracks handle logistical things like traffic and facilities, not NASCAR), this episode still reflects poorly on the sanctioning body and the sport. To this point, the 2011 season has been fantastic, and this sort of black eye is the last thing NASCAR needs.

The sport is trying to get fans to come back in a shaky economy; something like this will not do the sport any favors.

Ultimately, single-file racing doesn't really bug me; not every race is going to be a three-wide crashfest, and I can always find something about a race that I enjoy. Simply starting the engines is enough to get me riled up for a NASCAR race, no matter where it is. Hearing fans constantly bitch about how boring it all is pisses me off to no end.

But you know what pisses me off more? Fans who bought tickets never getting to the track or seeing a lap of racing, because the track didn't have the foresight or the common sense to realize the situation in which they'd found themselves. I wasn't even one of the fans ticketed to go to the race, and this whole thing pisses me off.

Smith obviously knew a Cup race at Kentucky would be huge -- he wouldn't have added 40,000 seats otherwise. But to do nothing about the traffic or the facilities for the fans who did manage to get there? There's no excuse.

If I were in charge, I'd give Kentucky Speedway one more chance. If this happens again in 2012, then the track loses its date. The sad part is, a lot of fans probably won't give Kentucky that second chance.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Who Says Road Courses Are Boring?

I'm baffled by those who say they don't like road courses, because road courses satisfy pretty much every requirement NASCAR fans say they want. Sure, they require drivers to turn left and right, and there are some drivers who would just as soon stick their foot in a meat grinder than turn right, but from a fan's perspective, what could be better?

After watching the Nationwide Series race this past Saturday at Road America, as well as the Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at Infineon Raceway (I still want to call the place Sears Point), I'm wondering why more fans aren't jumping on the left-and-right bandwagon.

Set aside for a moment the winners -- Nationwide Series points leader Reed Sorenson on Saturday and Kurt Busch on Sunday. NASCAR fans are constantly screaming about the so-called cookie cutter tracks, the 1.5-mile tracks that seem to litter the schedule.

Well, the road courses are anything but cookie-cutter. So check.

NASCAR fans say they want action, side-by-side racing with beating and banging and enough fender-rubbing to make a fabricator's head explode. Did you see some of the cars at the end of Sunday's race? With all the bent-up sheet metal and duct tape, it looked like we were at Martinsville, not Sonoma.

Did you see the move Jacques Villeneuve tried to pull in a green-white-checkered on Saturday? Where he tried to make it four-wide on the restart, got his right-side tires into the grass and proceeded to take out Brian Scott and Max Papis? That was a move that would probably lead to the Big One at Daytona or Talladega.

Did you see Tony Stewart dump Brian Vickers? Did you see Vickers pay back Stewart? Did you see Juan Pablo Montoya send Kasey Kahne spinning into the grass? Did you see Brad Keselowski dump Montoya to prevent being wrecked himself?

Why, all that sounds like Bristol before the track added progressive banking.

Everyone points to double-file restarts as the reason road course races have become so rough-and-tumble in recent years, but the restarts were rather calm this past weekend -- Villeneuve's stunt aside. I think we're seeing better road course racing these days because a lot of drivers are getting better at it.

Pretty much all the other incidents I listed above occurred during length green-flag runs.

We're not seeing as many road course ringers as we used to, and the ones we do see aren't doing nearly as well. Boris Said has spent a lot of time in recent years coaching Cup drivers on road course racing, and a lot of testing at places like Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio and Virginia International Raceway have led a lot of guys you might not think of as road course racers to more than hold their own at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

That's making for more competitive -- and more entertaining -- races.

So again, I ask: who says road courses are boring?

NASCAR Gets It Right: To call the end of Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Road America chaotic would be an understatement. Justin Allgaier took the lead from Michael McDowell on the third and final green-white-checkered restart and appeared to be on his way to his second win of the season.

Then the caution came out on the last lap. All Allgaier had to do was make it back to the finish line -- which is hard to do when you're low on fuel and Road America is four miles long. Allgaier ran out of fuel at Turn 6, and then NASCAR spent several minutes trying to determine whether Sorenson or Ron Fellows would be declared the winner.

Sorenson had been second to Allgaier, but at some point on the last lap, Sorenson slowed and Fellows zoomed past for second. Fellows thought he'd won the race; Sorenson thought Fellows passed him after the caution came out.

The video was quite clearly on Sorenson's side.

Fellows clearly passed Sorenson when the caution flag waved -- a clear no-no. NASCAR deserves credit for both taking the time to review the tape after what was a hectic final few laps and for making the right call.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2012 Hall of Fame Class a Dandy

Now that I've had roughly a week to digest the 2012 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I have to say ... it's a pretty damn good class. While some of the sport's pioneers -- Raymond Parks, Herb Thomas, Red Byron, etc. -- were again passed over, and there is legitimate concern their time for induction is drawing short, the 2012 class is an excellent and varied assortment of the best the sport's past has to offer.

One might even call it a template for future classes.

Here's the 2012 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame:

Cale Yarborough: Winner of 83 careers Cup Series races (fifth-most all-time) and three straight championships (1976, 77 and 78), becoming the first driver to win three straight titles. He won the Daytona 500 four times, and Yarborough's 14.82 winning percentage is the ninth-best all-time (and third-best among drivers with at least 500 career starts).

Darrell Waltrip: Tied with Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon for third all-time with 84 career Cup Series wins, while also winning the Cup Series championship in 1981, 1982 and 1985. Waltrip also won the 1989 Daytona 500 driving for Rick Hendrick. After retiring as a driver in 2000, Waltrip moved to the broadcast booth for Fox and Speed, and he has been referred to as the "Jon Madden" of NASCAR.

Dale Inman: The first crew chief to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Inman won eight Cup Series titles -- seven with cousin Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte in 1984. People seem to agree people like Ray Evernham and Chad Knaus are eventual Hall of Famers, so it's only right that the first well-known crew chief and the best ever gets in before them.

Richie Evans: A nine-time NASCAR National Modified Series champion -- including eight in a rown from 1978 to 1985, Evans was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Evans is the only driver to ever have his number (No. 61) retired by NASCAR, and Evans is the first inductee from outside the Cup Series.

Glen Wood: Driver, crew chief and car owner, Wood is one of the biggest reasons the Wood Brothers have been so successful -- winning at least one race in each of the past seven decades (including this year's Daytona 500 with rookie Trevor Bayne). Glen and his brother Leonard Wood also helped revolutionize the pit stop.

So there you have it: two legendary Cup drivers, a crew chief, an owner and someone from outside the Cup Series to round out a very nice Hall of Fame class. Yarborough and Waltrip were no-brainers (considering Allison got in this year with similar win totals and two fewer championships), so there's not really a lot to say about them.

Inman is notable for the reason I listed above, and Wood should eventually be joined by his brother Leonard in the Hall. Evans is the one who interests me, because of his status as the first non-Cup competitor or contributor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Considering this is the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and not the Sprint Cup Series Hall of Fame, it's appropriate to induct and consider drivers from other series. Evans' numbers speak for themselves, and I think his induction could eventually open the door for drivers like:

-Ron Hornaday (all-time Camping World Truck Series wins leader with 48 wins, four-time Truck Series champion)
-Jack Ingram (two-time Nationwide Series champion, three-time Late Model Sportman champion)
-Sam Ard (two-time Nationwide Series champion; held virtually every Nationwide Series record before Kyle Busch broke them)
-Jack Sprague (three-time Camping World Truck Series champion)

Naturally, people affiliated with the Cup Series will dominate the Hall of Fame and the attention surrounding it, because the Cup Series dominates all in the world of NASCAR. But it's important for NASCAR and those who vote for the inductees to remember the other divisions and the competitors who shined in them. If we focus solely on the Cup Series, we run the risk of excluding people who are not only worthy, but also tell a more complete story of NASCAR's history.

Hopefully, Evans' induction will open the door for those who never made their names in the Cup Series, by choice or otherwise. The Cup Series is great, but there is a lot more to NASCAR than just the premiere division.

A Title Favorite Emerges

Fifteen races into the 2011 Nationwide Series season, we're beginning to get a better idea of how the championship might be decided over the summer and fall months -- and along the way, we've discovered an unlikely title contender:

Points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

After finishing second to Carl Edwards in Saturday's race at Michigan, Stenhouse took a two-point lead over Elliott Sadler (my preseason pick to win the title), while Reed Sorenson sits four points back in third. Stenhouse has four top-5s in his last five races, including his first career win at Iowa Speedway on May 22 -- making him the first Nationwide Series regular to win a race since Justin Allgaier won at Bristol in March 2010.

Considering the struggles Stenhouse endured throughout much of 2010, his 2011 resurgence is a pleasant surprise. No doubt bouyed by the overall strength of Ford and Roush-Fenway Racing in 2011, Stenhouse has nonetheless shown speed and competitiveness on several occasions, and easily could've picked up his second win at Michigan.

Among all Nationwide Series contenders, Stenhouse has been the most consistent, recording 11 top-10s and six top-5s in 15 races. He has just two finishes outside the top-15 this season: a 21st at Richmond and a 38th at Talladega.

Sadler and Sorenson aren't to be counted out just yet -- neither is Allgaier, who won at Chicago two weeks ago -- but of those four, Stenhouse has been the most consistent. Sadler's early-season troubles (including a wreck at Daytona) put him behind the eight ball, while Sorenson -- while consistent with five top-5s and 10 top-10s -- just hasn't shown the threat to win that Stenhouse and Sadler have.

Stenhouse has been the only Nationwide Series regular to consistently run with -- and in some cases, outrun -- the Sprint Cup drivers this season, and his performance gets better week after week. Whereas the No. 6 team had speed but couldn't capitalize early in the season (a 14th-place effort at Bristol after leading laps a perfect example), things are starting to come together for that team.

For the time being, I'm going to stick with my preseason pick of Sadler; despite his early-season troubles, Sadler's team has rebounded to the tune of second in points. This is shaping up to be an exciting title fight down the stretch, especially now that we've seen Nationwide Series regulars win two of the last five races.

All I'm saying is, don't count out Stenhouse. He just might be hoisting the trophy when we get to Homestead in November.

Monday, June 6, 2011

NASCAR Fines Childress, Puts Him on Probation

NASCAR handed out its punishment of car owner Richard Childress on Monday, fining him $150,000 and placing him on probation until Dec. 31 for his altercation with Kyle Busch following Saturday's Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway.

Frankly, I'm not even sure what probation means for a car owner -- especially since we still can't really tell what probation means for the drivers.

Childress released a statement in which he accepted NASCAR's penalty (I'm pretty sure he can handle $150,000 without any problem), but he did not apologize or express regret in his actions. In today's culture of half-ass, forced apologies, this is refreshing. If Childress really is not sorry he beat on Busch's head, then he shouldn't tell us he is.

Considering Busch's lack of a black eye on Sunday, I'm tempted to fine Childress $250,000 for not hitting Busch hard enough and make him try again -- but that's just the Busch hater in me. I understand NASCAR had to do something, even if it was nothing more than a PR move.

Still, the punishment isn't likely one that will make Childress lose sleep at night. The fine will be little more than a drop in the bucket for him, and I seriously doubt he's worried about being on probation (because let's face it, before Saturday, when was the last time you heard of a NASCAR owner getting in trouble?).

Like the punishments on Busch and Kevin Harvick following their dust-up at Darlington, this one has no teeth. I don't think a punishment was necessary -- fisticuffs in stock-car racing are as old as stock-car racing itself -- but if NASCAR was going to hand out one, why not make it something that would actually bother Childress?

As it is, he makes a donation to the NASCAR Foundation and sits in the proverbial corner to think about what he did.

Fuel Mileage and Fisticuffs

Quite the weekend for NASCAR, where two of the sport's three national touring series races came down to fuel mileage, while the other was notable not for who won, but for a fist fight that broke out 30 minutes afterward.

Owners, Have At It?: Clint Bowyer dominated the Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday at Kansas Speedway to win at his hometown track, but the fireworks occurred long after the checkered flag waved.

Joey Coulter -- driving a truck owned by Richard Childress -- passed Kyle Busch on the last lap to finish fifth. As he made the pass, Coulter drifted up the banking, forcing Busch to either lift or risk hitting Coulter or the wall (or both). Amazingly enough, Busch lifted, coming home sixth.

On the cool-down lap, Busch rubbed against the right side of Coulter's truck: NASCAR code for "Hey, I don't like what you did." It's a move typical in racing, whether it's after the checkered flag has waved or under caution. Just about every driver has done it at one time.

But 30 minutes after the race, Childress -- all 65 years of him -- apparently had enough. According to reports, he confronted Busch, got the driver in a headlock and (in the words of ESPN's Marty Smith) went to beatin' on his head.

This wasn't just about the incident with Coulter on Saturday, nor was it about Busch's dust-up with Kevin Harvick at Darlington. Busch has been in run-ins with Childress' drivers over the past couple years -- apparently so much so that Childress once told Busch to cut it out before he took care of things himself.

It's unclear what happens to Childress from here; NASCAR on Sunday said Busch did not provoke the attack and had not violated his probation. The sanctioning body will likely punish Childress, probably because it views his behavior as unbecoming of an owner.

Which makes me wonder: if Coulter (or Harvick) had punched Busch, would that fall under "Boy's Have At It?" Does the fact that Childress is a car owner instead of a driver make any difference in this instance?

Putting aside my hatred for Busch as a fan for a second (though I admit, I got a good laugh out of this when I first heard about it), there's an interesting dilemma here. Ignore for a second that Childress is an owner, or the fact that he's nearly Busch's senior by 40 years. Which would NASCAR rather have: two people going at it man-to-man, fist-to-fist in the garage area, or wrecking each other on the track, where other drivers who have nothing to do with the feud might get caught up in something?

Frankly, I'd rather have the fist fight, because it wouldn't endanger or punish anyone else not involved with the feud. As previously mentioned, on-track wrecking can involve other cars. Torn-up sheet metal also means more work for the guys at the shop; you may dump a driver you're mad at into the wall, but in doing so, you just gave his fabricator a few extra hours in the shop.

Let the guys fight it out on occasion. It's safer, and as we saw from the collective NASCAR media orgasm on Saturday and Sunday, it's a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Running on Fumes: For the second straight week, fuel mileage dictated the finish of a race. Two races in fact: the Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland and the Cup Series race at Kansas.

Part of it's the new E15 ethanol fuel -- the way it burns and the fact that some teams are still struggling with fueling the car on pit stops. The other part boils down to an abundance of green-flag racing. We simply don't see as many cautions as we used to, especially late in the race, which means drivers are burning off the whole tank as they race toward the checkered flag.

Fans may not like fuel mileage races, but they've been a reality of auto racing from almost day one. Sometimes you get wreck-fests, sometimes you get three-wide at the stripe. Sometimes you get a race shortened by rain and sometimes a race comes down to who can save more fuel.

It happens; it's a simple reality of racing.

Some may be tempted to take something away from Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski because they won their respective races on fuel mileage, but they would be wrong in doing so. With competition being what it is today, you take a win any way you can get it, and a fuel mileage wins counts the same a rain-shortened win, which counts the same as if a guy goes out there, leads 200 laps and wins by seven seconds.

Allgaier and Keselowski both had fast cars in their respective races; Allgaier ran in the top 10 and top 5 all night in Saturday's Nationwide race, running down leader Carl Edwards in the final laps in what turned out to be a thrilling battle.

Keselowski was also fast in Sunday's Cup race, running in the top 10 virtually all day. He was almost as fast as his teammate Kurt Busch, who sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel strategy dropped him to a ninth-place finish.

Think about that: we're not talking about guys who ran 25th all day stealing a win. Allgaier and Keselowski were fast and competitive this weekend. Did fuel strategy help them? Absolutely, but their wins are no less valid than anyone else's. If anything, they're validated, since many questioned when both drivers would win in their respective series again.

Winning races is hard in NASCAR, so you pretty much take them however you can.

So Close, Yet So Far: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to win a race this season. It's going to happen.

Fuel mileage worked in Junior's favor at Kansas on Sunday (thanks in part to a spin just after halfway that put the No. 88 on a different pit cycle than the rest of the field); had Keselowski ran out of fuel, Junior would've won his first race in almost three years.

But the win is coming.

Sitting third in points, 41 out of the lead, Junior already has three top-5s (he had two all of last season) and seven top-10s (he had eight all of last season). He finished second in both Kansas and Martinsville, and his seventh-place effort in Charlotte wasn't indicative of how fast he was.

The speed is there (just not in qualifying), and Junior's got good chemistry with new crew chief Steve Letarte. The two are proving they can be fast, competitive and consistent, and if Junior keeps getting himself into the top-10 and top-5, that win will come.

Hell, the way he's running this year, he could get more than one.

Nationwide is on your Side: For the second time in three races, a Nationwide Series regular has won a race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Iowa a few weeks back, and Justin Allgaier took the checkered flag at Chicagoland on Saturday.

The relative lack of Cup drivers in the field helps -- only two were in the Iowa race and four suited up Saturday night -- but it's nice to see the young guys making a name for themselves and taking advantage of the opportunities given to them.

There's no reason to think this trend won't continue, either -- especially as we head into the summer months where the Nationwide Series holds most of its standalone events. There was a lot of early-season hand-wringing, a lot of people moaning about how we'd wind up with a winless champion.

But don't be so sure of that. Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series aren't going anywhere, but now the young guys are starting to hold their own. It's great to see.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Post-Charlotte Odds and Ends

Looks like I have some catching up to following the two weeks of festivities in Charlotte, N.C. With the NASCAR season roughly a quarter of the way through, let's take a look at some nuggets of potential interest.

Stenhouse Redeeming Himself: When the Nationwide Series stopped at Iowa Speedway in 2010, Ricky Stenhouse Jr was struggling. Tearing up race cars seemingly every week, Stenhouse crashed three cars in Iowa before Jack Roush benched him for a few weeks.

Then he finished fourth in the July Daytona race last season.

So far this season, Stenhouse has been one of the more impressive Nationwide-only drivers -- and he backed up all that early-season speed two weekends ago when he won at Iowa, beating Sprint Cup drivers Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski for his first career Nationwide Series win.

Stenhouse became the first Nationwide Series regular to win a Nationwide Series race since Justin Allgaier won at Bristol back in March 2010.

Through 13 races, Stenhouse is just one point behind series leader Elliott Sadler, thanks to five top-5s and 10 top-10s in 13 starts. This is a continuation of last season's late surge, where Stenhouse racked up three top-5s and eight top-10s and finished 16th in the points.

In a season where Roush-Fenway Racing -- and Ford overall -- seems to be resurgent, Stenhouse's strong start to 2011 is refreshing, and it might just land him the series championship once we get to Homestead in November.

Raikkonen Strong in NASCAR Debut: Former F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen was competitive in his NASCAR debut two weekends ago in the Camping World Truck Series race in Charlotte, finishing 15th. He then showed some promise in this past weekend's Nationwide Series race at the same track before a part failure ruined his day.

Rumor has it Raikkonen might make his Cup debut in a few weeks in Sonoma, Calif.

Raikkonen is just the latest open wheel star to make a foray into NASCAR; he was once teammates with Juan Pablo Montoya when both were driving F1 cars for McLaren, and he won the world championship in 2007. Already, Raikkonen is off to a better start than the likes of Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti, but I fear he may be moving up the ladder too quickly.

Then again, if he adapts quickly, why not? He's clearly got a world-renowned racing pedigree. But stock cars are completely different than anything he's ever driven before.

Keselowski Getting Better: Kurt Busch's tirade at Richmond last month, in which he blasted the entire Penske Racing organization, may be paying off ... just not for the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion.

His teammate, 2010 Nationwide Series champion Brad Keselowski, has shown signs of improvement after a dreadful start to the season. It started with a third-place showing at Darlington (aided by late pit strategy) and a top-5 qualifying effort at Dover. Keselowski was competitive at Dover before circumstances left him to finish 15th.

Then Keselowski races his way into the Sprint All-Star Race by finishing second to David Ragan in the Sprint Showdown. Failed brakes doomed Keselowski to finish last in the All-Star race, but Keselowski responded by winning the pole for the Coca-Cola 600.

He then ran in the top 10 for most of the night, restarting fourth on the green-white-checkered before he ran into the back of Kasey Kahne when Kahne ran out of gas. So Keselowski's 19th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 is in no indication of how he ran.

While Busch still has his struggles, Keselowski seems to be on the upswing.

Junior Being Junior: There seems to be two schools of thought on Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was half a lap away from winning the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night before running out of fuel and coating to a 7th-place finish: He's either the greatest thing ever, or he's a bum who has no business being inside a race car.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

Junior faces the scrutiny he does because of his name; he's not just an Earnhardt, he's Dale Earnhardt. Given what that name means to NASCAR fans, a lot of hopes and dreams were placed on Junior's shoulders -- without his asking -- when his legendary father passed away 10 years ago at Daytona.

Add a winless streak going on three years, and the fact that Junior has missed the Chase each of the last two seasons, and it would appear those in the "bum who shouldn't be in a race car" camp are right.

But remove Junior's name for a second; just focus on the numbers:

-Two-time Nationwide Series champion (1998, 1999)
-18 career Sprint Cup wins
-2004 Daytona 500 champion
-Won six races in 2004
-Has three top-five Cup points finishes (3rd in 2003, 5th in 2004 and 2006)

That's actually not a bad resume, if we're talking about a driver who isn't shouldered with the expectations of being an Earnhardt. Junior's 18 career wins tie him for 25th on NASCAR's all-time wins list with guys like Geoffrey Bodine, Harry Gant and the late Neil Bonnett.

Among active drivers, Junior has more career Cup wins than Kevin Harvick (17), Greg Biffle (16), Denny Hamiln (16), Ryan Newman (14), Kasey Kahne (11), Jamie McMurray (6) and Clint Bowyer (4).

Other active drivers with comparable win numbers to Junior: Carl Edwards (19), Matt Kenseth (20), Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton (21 each) and Kurt Busch (22).

Like Junior, many of the drivers I mentioned had lengthy winless streaks of their own.

Just something to think about.

Danica to NASCAR?: Speculation is really ramping up about a possible move to NASCAR by Danica Patrick, who finished 10th in the Indy 500 this past Sunday. Reports have Patrick running a full-time Nationwide Series schedule in 2012 while making select Cup starts and eyeing a full-time move to the Cup Series (possibly with Stewart-Haas Racing) in 2013.

Her sponsor,, is said to be interested in going wherever she goes, but right now, everything is speculative.

Frankly, IndyCar needs Patrick more than NASCAR does; she's easily the open-wheel league's most visible driver (Helio Castroneves is better known for winning Dancing With the Stars and two-time champion Dario Franchitti is better known as Ashley Judd's husband). While NASCAR would love to have her, I think her departure would leave IndyCar in a world of hurt.

That said, I don't really care which series she chooses; she just needs to pick one. It can't be good for her to hop back and forth between the heavy stock car and the light, nimble IndyCar. It's so hard to establish a rhythm when switching between two cars that are so vastly different, and there's the argument to be made that, this season, her NASCAR results have been much better than her IndyCar results.

Whichever route Patrick decides to take, she needs to pick one and stick with it. If she really wants to succeed in NASCAR, she needs to fully commit to it. Running half a Nationwide Series schedule every year won't get her the stock-car experience she needs to succeed. Better open-wheel drivers than Patrick have tried NASCAR and failed, so she really needs to think long and hard about this.

Most importantly, she needs to decide.

Pausing a Moment: With the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series coming to Kansas Speedway (located in Kansas City) this weekend, and with Jamie McMurray being a native of Joplin in border state Missouri, it seems appropriate to mention how the tornado-ravaged town still needs your help.

Texas REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 to the relief effort.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Long Time Coming

On the heels of Fox debuting a side-by-side commercial format at the end of Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover -- in which the commercials and the race were shown simultaneously via split-screen -- ESPN announced on Tuesday that it would debut a similar practice for this season's 10 Chase races.

"NASCAR NonStop," as ESPN called it, would be used in the second half of this season's 10 Chase races to be broadcast on both ESPN and ABC (the Saturday night race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, on Oct. 15, will be telecast on ABC). The split-screen commercial format is relatively new to NASCAR; before Sunday's experiment on Fox, the only NASCAR race to feature this was the July race at Daytona, in what TNT dubbed its "Wide Open Coverage."

This is great news; for years, NASCAR fans have clamored for this feature to make seemingly endless commercial breaks during races more bearable.

Commercial breaks under caution were never an issue -- taking a commercial break during a naturally-occurring lull in the action is a staple of sports broadcasting. But seemingly endless commercial breaks under green-flag racing irked fans, as did the networks' failure to consistently interrupt commercial breaks when something major happened.

How many times do we have lead changes during commercial breaks? How many times do we come back from commercial, only to see the caution flying for no obvious reason why? Split-screen commercials will fix such issues.

The IndyCar Series has used this format for years -- though to be honest, advertising rates for IndyCar telecasts pale in comparison to those for NASCAR races. Showing commercials in this format requires the cooperation of NASCAR, the networks and the advertisers -- and for years, advertisers balked at the idea.

But in light of Fox's experiment on Sunday, and ESPN's announcement on Tuesday, that tide might be changing. It wouldn't surprise me if, by the time the 2013 season rolls around, every Sprint Cup race features split-screen commercials. If I were being incredibly optimistic, I'd like to think all Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races would be treated the same way.

By showing fans more of the race, while still "paying the bills," as they say, NASCAR, the networks and the advertisers can have the best of both worlds. How many people change the channel when a race goes to commercial break? I do; I check on the baseball game or see what football games are on.

If I can still see racing action during commercial breaks, I'm more likely to stick around to see the ads -- which might compel me to buy those products or take advantage of those services.

Ultimately, the sponsors' willingness to do this stems in the fans' response. Sprint, Pizza Hut and FedEx showed ads in Sunday's lone split-screen block of ads; to show our appreciation as NASCAR fans, we should do business with those companies and let them know via contact channels or social media that we like the move.

If we get enough of a groundswell of support, if advertisers see this can be a good thing for their companies, maybe we'll see more of it down the road. We've been clamoring for this for years; now, it's time for us to make good on that desire.

There's momentum for this; let's keep it going.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kenseth a Serious Title Contender

For much of his career -- even when he won the 2003 Winston Cup championship -- Matt Kenseth has been an afterthought. A quiet, unassuming driver who never draws attention to himself with his driving style, Kenseth has quietly built a solid career -- even if he came into the 2011 season with a winless streak that spanned nearly two years and seemed to have a new crew chief every other week.

But following his win at Dover International Speedway this past Sunday, when Kenseth took two tires on the final pit stop and pulled away from Mark Martin, Kenseth has two wins this season and sits sixth in points.

Even if Kenseth wasn't so high in the points, the new wild card format based on wins would likely have him in the Chase.

But is Kenseth a legitimate title contender this season? I say yes.

Kenseth has had a lot more speed in 2011 than in recent years -- much in line with the rest of Roush-Fenway Racing, and we already know Kenseth knows how to win a title. The only issue in his way is consistency; after winning at Texas earlier this season, Kenseth had finishes of 36th, 21st and 25th.

A stretch like that during the Chase won't win you a title. Still, given how well Kenseth has run so far this season, a little luck could land the No. 17 car in the same class as the No. 48, No. 99, No. 29 and No. 18 come the fall.

Air Pockets
When Joey Logano smacked the outside wall and triggered a massive wreck late in Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Dover -- a wreck in which Clint Bowyer went on his side and there were legitimate fears he would climb over the wall separating the track from pit road -- there was almost a sense of deja vu.

Carl Edwards was under Logano as the two came out of Turn 4 to take the white flag, battling for the lead. Initial camera angles made it appear that Edwards got into Logano, sending the No. 20 car into the outside wall, before Logano came down and all hell broke loose.

My first thought? "There goes Carl, wrecking someone else for the win ..."

But further replays showed the two cars never made contact. Edwards broke loose under Logano, but corrected it as his car drifted up the banking. Logano then broke loose before hitting the fence.

So Edwards didn't wreck Logano -- but he did disturb the air enough to get Logano loose. Did he do that on purpose? Maybe he did, maybe he didn't -- and if he did, playing with the air like that coming to the white flag while battling for the win is fair game.

And even if Edwards did disturb the air against Logano's left rear like that, I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to trigger a huge, multi-car accident that left sheet metal torn all to hell and sent a crew member to the hospital after a spring hit him in the leg.

Still, Edwards isn't completely innocent in all this. He may not have meant for what happened to happen, but something tells me Logano doesn't wreck without another car underneath him.

Paying the Bills
Everyone got all excited when they saw Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were both entered in Friday's Camping World Truck Series race at Dover. But there's one simple reason why they were never going to go at each other in that race, and it has nothing to do with the punishments NASCAR handed down after Darlington.

See, Harvick and Busch are owners in the Truck Series; did you really think they were going to tear up their own equipment to settle a grudge? That money would've come out of their own pockets --- unlike in the Cup Series, where any of that nonsense would've been paid by Joe Gibbs or Richard Childress.

Harvick and Busch are many things, but they're not stupid -- especially Busch, who has had a hard time keeping his newfound truck team financially viable in its first year-plus of existence.

Trust me when I say the next round of Harvick v. Busch is coming ... but you're kidding yourself if you thought it would be in Friday's Truck race, where both drivers were also signing the checks for the vehicles they were driving.

One More Thing ...
Shoutout to Cole Whitt, the 19-year-old who's quickly making a name for himself in the Camping World Truck Series. Whitt finished a career-best second to Busch in Friday's race at Dover, leading until a series of late cautions put him against Busch on the ensuing restarts.

Whitt sits third in the standings, just seven points behind leader Matt Crafton. The youngster already has a pole (at Darlington, no less) and four top-10 finishes so far this season.

If Friday was any indication, that first win is just above the horizon.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

On Regan Smith:

Were it not for Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, Regan Smith would be the story of the week following his stunning upset win in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday.

Smith stayed out under caution in the closing laps and held off a furious charge from Carl Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish to claim his first official NASCAR victory.

I say official because we all remember what happened at Talladega in 2008, when Smith was a rookie driving for the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Coming to the checkered flag, Smith was running second to Tony Stewart. In the tri-oval, Smith went high to pass Stewart. When Stewart blocked, Smith cut back to the bottom -- and as Stewart tried to block again, Smith when below the yellow line and beat Stewart to the finish line.

NASCAR ruled Stewart the winner.

Setting aside the legitimacy of the yellow line rule (that's a topic for another post), NASCAR was right to rule as it did. Smith went below the yellow line to improve his position, which is against the rule. It's true that was Smith's only option aside from wrecking Stewart (see Keselowski & Edwards, Talladega 2009), but the rule is the rule.

Still, it was telling that FOX's Mike Joy chose to announce Smith's winning on Saturday by declaring, "This checkered flag he gets to keep!" I can't think of anyone in the NASCAR world who isn't happy for Smith's upset win -- both for Smith himself, and for his underfunded Furniture Row team based out of Denver, Colo.

Go ahead, say Smith stole the win. Try to de-legitimize his victory by calling it a strategy win. Racing is all about who gets to the checkered flag first, and on Saturday night, Smith did that. He won the race, and nothing will ever take that away from him. He'll always have that trophy, and his name will always be in the record book as a Southern 500 winner.

Now isn't the time to debate whether or not Smith can mount a run at the Chase (he's 27th in points, but could get a Chase wild card if he somehow vaulted into the Top 20), or if he'll even win another race. Now is the time to enjoy the moment, relish in yet another amazing storyline in an early NASCAR season that's been rife with them.

This isn't just about letting Smith enjoy his moment; this is about NASCAR, as a whole, enjoying the moment. Stories like this are rare in the era of multi-car conglomerates; if you don't drive for Hendrick, Childress, Roush or Gibbs, your chances of winning or running competitively every week are slim. What makes Saturday night so special was that, for once, the little guy beat the big boys.

Smith has a lot of talent; when he won Rookie of the Year honors in 2008, he went the entire season without recording a DNF. For the most part, Smith doesn't tear up his equipment, and he often runs his No. 78 Chevrolet past its capabilities. Smith's the kind of guy you would love to see in a Hendrick or a Roush car, just so you could see what he can truly accomplish.

Sadly, that might never happen. But Saturday night did happen, and for that, both Smith and NASCAR should be dancing in the streets.