Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Some Perspective, Please

Don't get me wrong; 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, driving the famed No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers, winning the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is probably one of the best openings to the 2011 season that NASCAR could ask for -- the only better beginning would've been Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning, but you take what you can get.

But let's exercise some perspective here.

Some have intimated in the days following the Daytona 500 that Bayne will be the sport's next big thing, the rising star who'll sweep in and save NASCAR from all its ills. That's a lot of pressure for a kid who's only made two Sprint Cup starts and is fighting for a Nationwide Series title in an unsponsored Roush Fenway ride.

Don't get me wrong; Bayne's got a lot of talent. He showed it in the Nationwide Series last season, and he was obviously good enough for Jeff Gordon -- Jeff Gordon! -- to work with him during Speedweeks.

But to proclaim him the sport's savior? To call him the Justin Bieber of NASCAR? That's a stretch.

NASCAR's history is littered with high-profile up-and-comers who showed a lot of promise but never lived up to it. For every Jeff Gordon, there are three Casey Atwoods. Even though Joey Logano's shown promise and improvement heading into his third full Cup season, who really believes he wouldn't have benefited from two full Nationwide seasons before moving up?

Granted, the circumstances in Logano's case were different; Tony Stewart leaving a year before the end of his contract sort of forced Joe Gibbs' hand. By and large, though, young drivers aren't allowed to develop the way they used to; even back in the late 1990s, drivers could spend a few years in the Nationwide Series (then the Busch Series) to hone their skills before moving to the Cup Series.

These days? Drivers like Logano and the Busch brothers are practically thrust into Cup the moment they're eligible. Kurt Busch jumped straight from the Camping World Truck Series to the Cup Series, and the bulk of Kyle Busch's Nationwide and Truck Series wins came after he'd already established himself as a Cup star.

Brad Keselowski has been the exception in recent years; after getting his big break in the Nationwide Series in 2007, Keselowski ran in the Nationwide Series full-time in 2008 and 2009, while adding in the occasional Cup start for experience (and, oh by the way, a win at Talladega in 2009).

He didn't start running in the Cup Series full-time until last season.

It's easy to jump on the Trevor Bayne bandwagon after his win in the Great American Race; it's a wonderful story, and Bayne has a world of potential. There's a reason the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc. had him signed to a development deal before the economy cratered, and Michael Waltrip Racing touted him as the next big thing before funding ran dry last year.

But don't let the excitement of the moment cloud the reality that he just turned 20, that he only has two Cup starts and one full Nationwide season under his belt. Bayne is competing for the Nationwide Series title this season, which I feel is the right move. I think he has a legitimate shot at the title, and the experience he gains this year, running Nationwide along with 17 or 18 Cup races, will serve him well.

If he lands a full-time Cup ride next season (in Jack Roush's No. 6, perhaps?), then that would be great. But let's not put Bayne on a pedestal so soon; he could be the next Jeff Gordon, or he could be the next Derrick Cope.

Or, more likely, he'll fall somewhere in between. But let's find out where that is before we anoint the kid, okay?

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Preview

In honor of the Chase, 12 questions as we gear up for Sunday's running of the Daytona 500 ...

1) What's with the new nose?
The nose of the Sprint Cup car has a different look this season; the front splitter has been filled in and the braces have been removed. The braces, on top of being an eyesore, proved problematic when the front of the car was damaged. The new nose is much stronger, as we've seen whenever cars spun through the grass, and it looks much better. This is part of the continuing evolution of the car -- the wing was replaced by the rear spoiler last season -- and it's come about, in part, because of the new-generation Nationwide Series car. NASCAR wants to bring brand identity back to the Cup Series by 2013, and the new nose is part of that process.

2) Okay, lots of new rides out there. Who's who now?
Part of the new NASCAR season is figuring out where certain drivers or sponsors have gone, and 2011 is no different. Kevin Harvick is still driving the No. 29 for Richard Childress Racing, but he's now sponsored by Budweiser (and honestly, the black paint scheme unnerves me); likewise for Jeff Gordon, who's No. 24 Impala is now sponsored, in large part, by the AARP's Drive To End Hunger program. Kurt Busch is now driving the No. 22 Penske Dodge, sponsored by Shell/Pennzoil, meaning Brad Keselowski, the 2010 Nationwide Series champion, is now driving the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Marcos Ambrose is now driving the No. 9 Stanley Tools/DeWalt Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, while Bobby Labonte is now piloting the No. 47 Toyota. Need a flow chart?

3) What about the crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports?
To put it simply: Alan Gustafson is now Jeff Gordon's crew chief. Steve Letarte now calls the shots for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Lance McGrew has been paired with Mark Martin. Junior and Jimmie Johnson now share a race shop, with Gordon and Martin sharing the other. Though Johnson won his fifth straight title last season, he wasn't as strong as he'd been in years past, and none of the other Hendrick teams found Victory Lane (and Martin and Junior both missed the Chase). Rick Hendrick's never been afraid to mix things up, and time will tell whether these changes work. A lot of people expect Gustafson, believed to be the smartest crew chief not named Chad Knaus, to be great for Gordon, while some feel Letarte's upbeat attitude will help Junior. I'm reserving judgement.

4) If Junior still struggles, will we have to face the fact that he's the issue?
Yes; I love Junior. I know he has talent, because you don't win 18 Cup races and two Nationwide Series championships if you don't. But because of his name, that's not good enough. It's a fact that Junior's had a rough go of it on the track since 2005, and he floundered at Hendrick, both with Tony Eury Jr. and McGrew. If his partnership with Letarte -- who was vilified toward the end of his tenure with Gordon -- doesn't work, we may have to just face the reality that Junior's the issue. Maybe the pairing with Hendrick is a bad fit, maybe Junior's not the driver he used to be. But if this season's a bust, I don't think we can blame the crew chief anymore.

5) So, new points system, huh?
Apparently; NASCAR re-vamped the points system for its three national touring series starting this season. The winner will receive 43 points, while second place will get 42 points, decreasing in one-point increments all the way down to one point for 43rd. Winners will receive a three-point bonus, and drivers will get one bonus point for leading a lap and one bonus point for leading the most laps. If a driver wins the race and leads the most laps, he gets 48 points (oh, the conspiracy theories that invites ...). Not so sure NASCAR needed to do this, but it is simpler, and it will place an emphasis on winning (read my in-depth analysis here). The 11th and 12th Chase spots will also to drivers outside the Top 10 in points, but in the Top 20, with the most wins.

6) So, it's the Jamie McMurray Rule?
More or less. Or the Kyle Busch Rule, if you go back to 2009 -- when Busch won four races but missed the Chase. Imagine if we go to Richmond for the Chase cutoff and there are three drivers outside the top 10 who have a shot to win their way into the Chase. Say what you want about the Chase, but I love this "wild card" idea -- just another way NASCAR is trying to emphasize winning without ignoring consistency. It's a difficult balance to achieve, and I don't envy the NASCAR brass in the slightest for trying to get there.

7) Carl Edwards had a strong end to 2010; can he be a threat this year?
He can, but I won't say he will. We thought the same thing after he won nine races in 2008 ... and Edwards went winless until the next-to-last race of last season. It can be hard to tell who's strong from year to year, which is part of what makes Johnson's five-year title run so impressive. Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team are certainly capable; Edwards is a talented driver, and it appears the Ford teams have the new engine figured out, so it's possible. I'm just not comfortable saying it will; and frankly, I think Edwards' insistence on running the full Nationwide Series schedule, even though he can't win the championship, will detract from his Cup effort.

8) Poor Denny Hamlin ... can he bounce back this year?
This can go either way; Hamlin and the No. 11 team can use last year's collapse as motivation to come out stronger in 2011 -- though it's hard to imagine the team being stronger than when it won eight races last year -- or the team can slump this season, still trying to pick up the pieces. To be frank, Hamiln gave away the title last year, both with his fuel gamble at Phoenix and his early-race contact at Homestead. Hamiln lost last year's title as much as Johnson won it, and how Hamlin performs this season will say a lot about his mental makeup. He could come out and dominate, or he could limp around and struggle to find consistency. It can really go either way.

9) Who's your Chase darkhorse?
I'm tempted to say Brad Keselowski, but that's just the fan in me talking. I'm gonna go with Joey Logano; this will be his third full-time season in the Cup Series, and a lot of experts will tell you that third year in when things really start to come together for a driver. He's obviously got really good cars at Joe Gibbs Racing, and Greg Zipadelli is still regarded as one of the best crew chiefs in the garage. He also had a strong end to 2010. His finishes to close out last season: 7th at Charlotte, 6th at Martinsville, 5th at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 3rd at Phoenix and 39th at Homestead (accident with Juan Pablo Montoya). Watch out for Sliced Bread this year.

10) What's up with Richard Petty Motorsports?
The team's finally got its finances in order, and Richard Petty is now more than just a figurehead. They contracted from four teams to two: the No. 9 or Marcos Ambrose and the No. 43 of A.J. Allmendinger. Both teams are fully funded for the season, and 2011 could be a case of "less is more." Allmendinger showed flashes of brilliance last season when the team was in flux every week, and Ambrose is a threat on the road courses. RPM still won't be the best Ford operation in the Cup garage, but now that the team's financial problems have been resolved, don't be surprised if this team makes a little noise in 2011.

11) Can Jeff Gordon win his fifth straight title?
I say he can, and only because of new crew chief Alan Gustafson. Gordon had fast cars last season, but bad luck and questionable calls from Steve Letarte kept the four-time Cup Series champion out of Victory Lane. Though he made the Chase, Gordon was again an afterthought as his protege won another championship -- No. 5, surpassing Gordon in the record books. Gustafson is one of the brightest minds in the garage, and Gordon has to be motivated by the fact that the guy he helped bring in has been kicking his tail the last few years. Will Gordon complete his Drive For Five? Probably not, but don't be shocked if he does.

12) Will Jimmie Johnson win his sixth straight championship?
I want to say no. I want to say this year's title will go to someone like Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick or Jeff Gordon or Carl Edwards. But let's face it; Johnson and the No. 48 team have won the last five championships for a reason, and it'll take a Herculean effort to stop them. Johnson wasn't even at his best last season, and he still won the title. At this point, Johnson's the preseason favorite by default. I'm picking Johnson until someone beats him, so until further notice, Jimmie Johnson is the favorite to win the 2011 championship -- as much as you guys might hate it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series Season Preview

Five questions heading into the 2011 Nationwide Series season, which opens on Saturday with the DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway ...

1) What's this about full-time Cup drivers no longer being able to win the championship?
NASCAR ruled in the offseason that drivers must select one national series -- Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series or Sprint Cup Series -- in which they will pursue championship points in the coming season. Drivers can still run as many races in the other series as they want, but they will only receive points in one series. Full-time Cup drivers have won the last five Nationwide Series titles, with Martin Truex Jr. the last Nationwide-only driver to claim the title in 2005. Defending champion Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards are still planning to run the full Nationwide schedule -- mostly because of sponsor commitments -- but they will not be elgibile for the title because they selected the Cup Series. This opens the door for guys like Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola and Trevor Bayne to battle for the championship.

2) So who's the favorite, then?
Hard to tell, really; Allgaier is in a new ride with Turner Motorsports, and this will be Almirola's first full-time season in the Nationwide Series -- though he's in a competitive ride in JR Motorsports' No. 88. Bayne will make some noise, but don't be surprised if the series champion winds up being a former Cup driver; Elliott Sadler will run the full season for Kevin Harvick, Inc., and he has just as good a shot at the title as anyone else. Right now, I see the title coming down to Sadler and Almirola; there's still too much uncertainty surrounding Allgaier and Bayne, and I don't see anyone else capable of rising to the occasion right now.

3) But if the Cup boys can still run all the races, will we see a champion without a win?
It's possible; I would've liked to see NASCAR limit the number of races a full-time Cup driver can run in the Nationwide Series (like, say, 17 races) for that reason. With Keselowski and Edwards still running the full slate -- and Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick likely running their share of races -- the series champion could wind up with one win or none. However, it wouldn't surprise me if Keselowski and/or Edwards bow out midway through the season, if their sponsors allow. I think knowing they can't win the title will deter Cup drivers from saturating the Nationwide Series in the coming years, and the series can once again become a proving ground for the country's young up-and-comers. After all, that's the point of the Nationwide Series -- to groom the next generation of Cup stars.

4) What about the new car? That thing was sweet!

The new-generation Nationwide Series car, which saw the track four times in 2010, will be run full-time this season. The car incorporates all the safety advances in the current-generation Sprint Cup car, but the spoilers and front ends are designed to look sleeker and give back the idea of manufacturer identity; already, Ford and Dodge have benefited by rolling out the Mustang and Challenger, respectively. The cars look great, and the racing in those four races last year was pretty good. NASCAR wants to use these cars as a template for future Cup cars, and I'd say they're doing a pretty good job so far.

5) Will Danica Patrick be back?
Yes, Patrick will run 12 races this season, including the first four before moving over to her ride in the IndyCar Series. Her slate will include a debut at Bristol in March, and Patrick will look to improve on 2010 -- in which her best finish was 19th at Homestead. I still don't see how she can improve if she's spending the year driving in two separate series, going between two cars that are so drastically different. Frankly, I'd like to see her pick a series and stick with it. If she wants to run in NASCAR, I think she needs to fully commit to it. The transition from open-wheel to stock car racing is so jarring that some of the best drivers in the world have struggled with it (Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya), and she doesn't have nearly the resume of those three. She'll improve, but switching between series will not do her any favors.

Coming Wednesday: 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Preview

Monday, February 14, 2011

2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Season Preview

We're less than a week away from the official start of the 2011 NASCAR season (if you count the Budweiser Shootout, the season's already started), with Friday night's NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona marking the first points-paying event of the season.

With that in mind, here are five burning questions for the Camping World Truck Series in 2011.

1) Will Todd Bodine repeat as series champion?
Bodine won his second series title in 2010, thanks to four wins -- the most among all full-time drivers -- 17 top-5s and 20 top-10s in 25 starts. That sort of consistency will be difficult to replicate. Not because Bodine's team won't be up to the task, but there are several other teams in the series who will likely be better in 2011. Bodine will be in the mix, but don't bet on him to repeat.

2) Can Ron Hornaday have a bounce-back season?
The 2009 series champion struggled in 2010, only winning two races and recording just 13 top-10s. Consistency was an issue for Hornaday, who found a lot of the trouble he avoided the year prior. We know Hornaday has strong equipment -- Kevin Harvick, Inc. supplies some of the fastest and most reliable trucks in the series. If Hornaday can avoid trouble -- and keep the same crew chief throughout the season -- he could be a threat again in 2011.

3) Will Austin Dillon suffer a sophomore slump?
The 2010 series Rookie of the Year -- who won two races and finished fifth in the standings in his grandfather's black No. 3 Silverado -- will be considered one of the preseason favorites, as well he should. Seven top-5s and 16 top-10s aren't championship material, though, but I expect those numbers to go up as Dillon enters his second full season. Moonlighting Cup drivers aren't a big deal in the Truck Series, so Dillon should win three or four races and challenge for the points title.

4) Can Ricky Carmichael finally break through?
A lot of preseason hype has gone to Travis Pastrana, the latest extreme sports star to give NASCAR a shot. But don't forget about Carmichael, who showed flashes of talent in 2010. He had three top-5s and nine top-10s, but inconsistency left him 13th in the final standings. This will be Carmichael's second full-time season, one that should see him make a little more noise up front so long as he can avoid trouble.

5) Who will win the series title?
It's tempting to pick a "safe" guy, like Bodine or Hornaday -- or maybe even go out on a limb for someone like Matt Crafton (even though he hardly ever wins -- and you have to win at least twice to be a title contender in this series) -- but I'm going with Dillon. He showed remarkable talent and maturity in his rookie season, winning two races and finishing fifth in the final standings. I don't see a sophomore slump in his future (see above), and I honestly think by the time we get to Homestead in November, he'll be hoisting the trophy.

Coming Tuesday: 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series Season Preview

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Suspend Annett for All of 2011

Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett, who is just weeks away from making his debut with Rusty Wallace Racing, was arrested Sunday morning in Mooresville, N.C. and charged with four counts: driving while intoxicated (DWI), texting and driving, failure to reduce speed and resisting an officer.

A statement for RWR said that Annett would be subject to "a package of sanctions," but that he would be behind the wheel of the No. 62 car in the season opener at Daytona on Feb. 19.

Umm ... what?!

Any time a professional athlete is busted for drunk driving -- reports indicate that Annett's blood-alcohol level was four times the legal limit in North Carolina -- I feel a suspension is in order. That's especially true in NASCAR.

Think about it; Annett was busted for getting behind the wheel when (apparently really) drunk. Do you think he should be climbing into a race car any time soon?

Team owner Rusty Wallace told (remember, Wallace is also an ESPN analyst) that he doesn't take this sort of thing lightly, but if that's the case, then why is Annett being allowed to run at Daytona? Did the sponsor dictate that it would not pay up if Annett wasn't in the car? That wouldn't surprise me -- and as hard as sponsors are to come by these days, it would be tempting for Wallace to acquiesce to the sponsor's request.

Still, Annett apparently has a problem, and if I'm one of his competitors, the last thing I want to see is him on the race track. The late Tim Richmond had the reputation of being a partier, and some drivers used to worry about him being under the influence behind the wheel.

Then there's the tale of the late Rob Moroso. Moroso died in 1990 after he was involved in a high-speed accident near Mooresville, N.C. Officials later found Moroso had a BAC more than twice the legal limit.

We're fortunate Annett didn't become another Moroso.

If I'm NASCAR, Annett doesn't see the season. I don't care about his contract with RWR or his sponsor commitments; he threw all that out the window when he decided to climb behind the wheel with a BAC of .32 (experts say alcohol poisoning usually sets in when the BAC approaches .40).

I don't know if Annett has a drinking problem or not, but he does not deserve to be in a race car this season. Suspend him for 2011 and set rigid guidelines that he must adhere to in order to have any hope of racing in 2012. NASCAR got tough on Shane Hmiel and kicked him out of the sport for drug use; why not treat Annett's incident the same way?

If Annett's allowed to race at Daytona, whatever punishment RWR doles out will be largely meaningless. If NASCAR doesn't step in and park Annett, then the sanctioning body has a large perception problem. There's already one, considering alcohol sponsors are prevalent in the sport, but there's no way Annett can drive.

If Wallace won't do the right thing, NASCAR must: suspend Michael Annett for the 2011 season.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

NASCAR Announces New Points System

I realize I'm a little more than a week late with this, but I wanted to give myself plenty of time to digest the particulars and make sure I understood them before offering an opinion. Unlike a lot of NASCAR fans who populate the message boards, I didn't want to fly off the handle with an emotional response without true understanding.

I dunno, I'm odd like that.

As expected, NASCAR announced that it would revamp its points system for the top three national touring series. Race winners would receive 43 points, with second place receiving 42 points, decreasing in 1-point increments all the way down to 43rd place, which would receive one point.

Last place in the Camping World Truck Series is 36th, which would net a driver eight points.

Drivers would receive three bonus points for winning a race. Leading a lap will result in a bonus point, as will leading the most laps. If a driver wins the race and leads the most laps, he'll receive 48 points (cue the conspiracy theories).

Drivers will also receive a three-point bonus for the Chase if they win a "regular season" race. After the fall race at Richmond, the top 10 in points will reset to 2,000, with drivers seeded by wins. Chase positions 11 and 12 will be taken by the drivers outside the top 10 in points, but in the top 20, with the most wins.

Call it the Jamie McMurray Rule.

If drivers between 11th and 20th are tied in wins, or there are no wins, the final two Chase spots will be determined by points position. Imagine if guys 11th through 14th in points went into the fall race at Richmond with a shot to win their way into the Chase.

Just think how awesome that would be.

While I'm still not convinced the point system needed to be simplified, the new formula is, by and large, simpler. Separating each position by one point (before taking bonus points into account) is easier to understand and favors consistency; the emphasis on winning comes in the form of bonus points.

Example: If a driver wins the race and leads the most laps, he receives 48 points. If the second-place finisher doesn't lead a lap, he received 42 points. That's a difference of six points; in a system where each position is only separated by one point, that large a swing can be significant.

Example again: If a driver wins the race, but does not lead the most laps, he receives 47 points. If the second-place driver leads the most laps, he receives 44 points -- leaving the race winner with a 3-point edge.

Again, that's a big span when the difference between, say, third and fourth is one point.

The result? Achieving the delicate balance between consistency -- racing gods help you if you blow a motor and finish 43rd -- and winning. Fans didn't care for Matt Kenseth winning the 2003 title in a rout despite winning just one race, but I'm not sure crowning a driver with eight wins and seven DNFS is the way to go, either.

I would've liked to have seen NASCAR stop awarding points to drivers who finish worse than 30th, similar to Formula 1. Not only would it reward consistency, but it would also stop teams from repairing badly-damaged race cars so a guy can ride around, finish 30th and pick up six points.

But I understand NASCAR President Mike Helton's assertion that every team that shows up to the track deserves some points.

Truth of the matter is, NASCAR will never create a point system that will please everyone -- just as it would never create a schedule or a car template or a television package that will please everyone. While I felt NASCAR had more important issues to address than the point system, this is a system that has the potential to create more exciting racing and more exciting title bouts down the stretch.

And if that happens, then does everything else really matter?

Let's just go racing, already.