Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Initial Thoughts: NASCAR The Game 2011

For the first time in roughly three years, we have a new NASCAR videogame. Activison released NASCAR The Game 2011 for Xbox 360, PlayStation3 and Nintendo Wii on Tuesday -- marking the first since NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona that anyone other than Electronic Arts released a serious NASCAR game for consoles.

I'll have more in-depth thoughts in the coming days and weeks, as I spend more time with the game, but here are some initial thoughts as I work my way through the game.

The Good
-Tremendous sense of speed. I've played my share of NASCAR games (and really, racing games in general) where there's no sensation of speed. The screen might say you're going 195, but it doesn't look like it. NASCAR The Game 2011 doesn't have that problem.

-Visual style. Obviously, getting each of the 23 Sprint Cup tracks right is paramount -- and boy, does NASCAR The Game 2011 get this one right -- but the entire game simply *feels* like NASCAR. The menu screens have a flair all their own, which adds to the overall feel of the game.

-Control. One of my biggest issues with the Xbox 360 version of NASCAR 09 was how clumsy the game felt. Driving a stock car in that game felt more like a chore than anything else, certainly not as smooth as some of the older NASCAR titles I still play today. NASCAR The Game 2011 doesn't have that problem -- in some ways, it handles a lot like Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.

-Authenticity. Though the cars and drivers are based off 2010 -- Kurt Busch is still in the No. 2 car, and those damn splitter braces are back -- this game still manages to get virtually everything right. If a track has progressive banking (Bristol, Homestead), you feel it -- and my inner geek loves seeing the new videoboard as I come off Turn 4 at Martinsville.

The Bad
-One series only. You can only run in the Sprint Cup Series in NASCAR The Game 2011; sure, drivers from other series make cameos (Todd Bodine, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Trevor Bayne), but if you're hoping to run those new Mustangs or Challengers, you're going to be disappointed. Though I soured on EA's later titles, I appreciated that the series offered all three series -- and even Modifieds, as far back as NASCAR Chase For the Cup 2005.

Blah Career mode. Somewhat in line with the above complaint, NASCAR The Game 2011 features a bare-bones, sort of pointless Career mode. You pretty much run the 2010 Cup schedule and fight for the championship. Hopefully, future games in this series will add the other racing series and build a more robust career.

Cautions, anyone? I know I have cautions turned on, and yet ... through roughly 20 races or so, I've yet to see one. Which, if you just happen to run a race in which nothing happens to bring out the caution, is fine ... but I was in the middle of a 15-car pileup on the backstretch at Daytona -- and the caution never waved. Weirder still, the caution lights along the catchfences are always on.

-Incomplete? In some regards, NASCAR The Game 2011 feels incomplete -- which is a shame, considering this game's release was delayed a month. Why push back the release date and not finish the job?

Still, given these relatively minor (but noticeable to NASCAR fans) shortcomings, NASCAR The Game 2011 is proving to be a pretty good racing game. I'll post a more in-depth review once I've dug even deeper into the game, but so far I'm having fun with it.

Preliminary score: 7 out of 10

Monday, March 28, 2011

Has Auto Club Speedway Found Its Niche?

The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. has had an interesting 15 years.

The 2-mile oval originally built by Roger Penske was designed to give NASCAR a presence in the Los Angeles market -- the second-largest media market in the country -- and the annual trip was met with a mix of anticipation and dread; sure, NASCAR in Hollywood was a spectacle, but the racing on the wide, relatively flat surface wasn't the greatest in the world.

Still, no one begrudged the fact that NASCAR wanted a presence in southern California -- that is, until NASCAR gave the track a second Cup date. As if that weren't blasphemous enough, NASCAR took the date away from Darlington.

Not just any Darlington date, either; NASCAR took away the Southern 500 -- a NASCAR tradition revered almost as much as The Masters in golf -- and gave it to Fontana.

The outrage, while justified, was predictable.

NASCAR's had to change over the years, and in many ways, it's done so for the better. The sport is far safer than it was even five years ago -- and despite what naysayers may tell you, the competition in the sport has never been greater. But a lot of changes have rankled the traditional fan -- none more so than leaving Darlington in favor of a market that, in recent years, has shown little interest in stock car racing.

Attendance at Auto Club Speedway in recent years has been about as dull as the racing. Empty seats have been easily visible on television; while it's true that empty seats have been a problem almost everywhere in recent years, Fontana had attendance issues long before the economy tanked.

Maybe Fontana didn't deserve that second Cup date after all.

So NASCAR announced that, starting this season, it would take Fontana's second Cup date and give it to Kansas Speedway. On top of that, the track shaved 100 miles off the race distance -- it actually did this with the fall race last season, and the results were tremendous.

Now that the pavement has worn over the last 15 years, Fontana has the potential to produce great side-by-side racing. The groove has widened over the years, and the speeds they run at Auto Club Speedway are some of the fastest on the circuit.

Restarts are frantic at Fontana, and it's not uncommon to see cars going four- or even five-wide along the back straightaway. Fontana's not a track that will crumple a lot of sheet metal -- and if most fans are honest with themselves, that's what they want to see -- but anyone pining for close, side-by-side racing, Fontana has the potential to fit that bill.

Especially now that the race is 100 miles shorter.

Sunday's Auto Club 400 -- which Kevin Harvick won with a thrilling pass of Jimmie Johnson coming off Turn 4 on the last lap -- clocked in at two hours and 39 minutes (by far the shortest Cup race in recent years). The lack of cautions certainly helped, but so did taking away those last 100 miles.

Shortening races gives the drivers more urgency; there isn't enough time to simply ride around and wait for the adjustments to be made. That's why the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series sometimes put on a better show; with shorter races, drivers have to get up on the wheel and get what they can when they can.

There's no waiting.

I've long been a critic of Auto Club Speedway; for a time, it was the only track on the circuit I could've done without. But the last two races have been competitive and compelling. Maybe the track has found its place in the sport after 15 years; a one-time stop every year where we're treated to 400 miles of high speeds, side-by-side racing and four- and five-wide competition.

As much as the traditionalists would love NASCAR to ditch places like Fontana and return to Darlington and Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, it's not happening. Such is the price of growth and change. But Fontana seems to have finally found itself, and that can only mean good news for NASCAR and its fans.

Besides, we've got Martinsville this week. What's not to like there?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Could Jeff Gordon Be Back?

There's a reason Dale Earnhardt once called Jeff Gordon "Wonder Boy."

A lot of it had to do with Gordon's relative youth when he first broke into the Cup Series back in 1993 -- though he was still older than Trevor Bayne, this year's Daytona 500 champion. But more than anything, Gordon was damn good. So good, he beat Earnhardt for the 1995 series title. Then he finished second to teammate Terry Labonte in 1996.

Then he dominated in 1997 and 1998, winning back-to-back Cup titles and tying a modern-era NASCAR record with 13 wins in 1998. That's three championships and a second-place finish in four years.

Not quite five in a row, but still damn impressive.

Gordon later won the title in 2001, and along the way, Gordon won three Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s. Following Sunday's convincing win at Phoenix, Gordon has 83 career wins, tied for fifth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list. He's one away from tying Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third all-time.

It's conceivable that Gordon could surpass those legends this season. While he won't touch David Pearson (second all-time with 105 wins), and no one will ever touch Richard Petty's 200 wins, ending your career third in wins is no small feat.

But the more immediate question should be: is Gordon a title contender?

I said before the season started that he was, and Sunday's performance only reinforces that belief. The offseason shuffle at Hendrick Motorsports that paired Gordon with crew chief Alan Gustafson -- widely considered the smartest Cup crew chief not named Chad Knaus -- had a lot of experts expecting big things from the No. 24 this season, and I think moving Gordon's shop out of the same building as Jimmie Johnson helps, too.

Sunday's win snapped a 66-race winless streak for Gordon, but it wasn't like he was uncompetitive during that stretch. He finished second eight times during that streak, and there were at least four races last year that Gordon should've won. Though he went winless last season, Gordon still ran well enough to make the Chase.

I wouldn't call Gordon the favorite -- that title goes to Johnson until someone beats him -- but the greatest driver of the last 20 years is once again a factor, and it wouldn't surprise me if come Homestead, we're looking at another five-time champion.

Is that wishful thinking? Maybe. But after Sunday, there might be something to it.