Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Reality Check for the Nationwide Series

There's been a lot of chatter in recent years about the Nationwide Series lacking an identity of its own, what with Cup drivers coming down into the series to dominate races, steal prize money and win championships at the expense of the up-and-comers.

A full-time Cup Series driver has won the last five Nationwide Series titles: Kevin Harvick in 2006; Carl Edwards in 2007; Clint Bowyer in 2008; Kyle Busch in 2009; and Brad Keselowski in 2010. Martin Truex Jr., who went back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, is the last driver to win a Nationwide Series title while not competing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series.

The racket about this phenomenon got so loud that NASCAR tried to do something about it; in the offseason, NASCAR told drivers to choose one national touring series in which to collect championship points. Drivers could still run as many races in the other series as they wanted, but they could only collect points in one series.

The result? Justin Allgaier is the Nationwide Series points leader, but he's yet to win a race in 2011. In fact, full-time Cup drivers have won all eight races so far this season; Busch and Edwards have six wins between them.

It's entirely possible the Nationwide Series crowns a winless champion this season.

Some have called for limiting the number of races a full-time Cup driver can run in the Nationwide Series, if not outright ban them; I've even advocated this in the past. Experts bemoan the lack of identity in the Nationwide Series, despite a new-generation race car that has everyone -- drivers, officials, fans, media -- excited. Tracks and sponsors love the money and exposure Cup drivers offer -- which is why an outright ban will never fly.

But let's be realistic. Cup drivers have always been a part of the series' identity, even back to its founding in 1982. Do you know who won the first-ever Nationwide Series race? The late Dale Earnhardt -- who was already three years into his Cup career.

Can you tell me who the top two drivers are on the Nationwide Series' all-time wins list? Mark Martin and Kyle Busch -- and the bulk of their wins in the Nationwide Series have come in the middle of their respective Cup careers.

The problem isn't that Cup drivers are running Nationwide Series races -- they've always done that, and they always will. The problem is Cup drivers running the full Nationwide Series schedule, a phenomenon that didn't crop up until 2006.

Harvick actually became the first driver to run both the Nationwide and Cup Series schedules full-time in 2001, even though he did not run in the Daytona 500. Circumstances dictated this, since Harvick wasn't originally scheduled to go Cup racing in 2001 until Earnhardt's death. But once Harvick pulled the double again in 2006, winning his second Nationwide Series title, it opened the flood gates for other drivers.

Edwards and Keselowski are slated to run the full Nationwide Series schedule this season, despite not being eligible for the championship. Whether that's because of driver preference or sponsor commitments, that's a problem.

The Nationwide Series has always been a feeder series for the up-and-coming drivers to test their mettle against moonlighting Cup drivers; it's as true today as it was in 1982. The Nationwide Series has never been exclusively about the young guys. NASCAR has always tried to strike a delicate balance between exposure and self-identity in the series, and that balancing act has been a failure in the last five years.

Don't ban Cup drivers outright -- I don't think the series would survive in the long run. But placing a limit on how many races a full-time Cup Series driver can run in the Nationwide Series -- say, 17 races (roughly half the schedule) -- could be the way to restore that balance.

Cup drivers aren't going away, and nor should they. But NASCAR has a way to restore competitive balance to the Nationwide Series and give that series a champion that won't leave people feeling empty at the end of the year.

But they refuse to do it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Double Yellow Line Rule: Safe or Trouble?

When NASCAR visits Daytona and Talladega -- the only two tracks on the circuit which require the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates -- it institutes what we refer to as the "yellow line rule." Basically, drivers cannot dip below the double-yellow line running along the bottom of the track in an effort to improve their position.

Think of it as out-of-bounds.

NASCAR implemented the rule several years ago at the plate tracks in the interest of safety, arguing that it didn't need cars going all the way into the grass trying to make passes before blending back into the traffic. On the surface, it sounds great, but in recent years events have called the yellow line rule into question.

Take Sunday's race at Talladega, for instance, where some accused winner Jimmie Johnson of dipping below the yellow line to make the winning pass on Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. I've already made my opinion known -- but it does bring to mind other controversial instances.

There's the 2011 Budweiser Shootout, in which Denny Hamlin beat Kurt Busch to the line, but NASCAR gave Busch the victory after declaring Hamlin made the pass below the yellow line.

In the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, Brad Keselowski won after making contact with Carl Edwards in the tri-oval coming to the checkered flag, sending Edwards' car airborne and into the catchfence. Edwards went low to block Keselowski, and Keselowski held his line -- in large part because he couldn't go below the yellow line.

At Daytona in July 2009, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch came off the final turn fighting for the win. Busch was in the lead, and he went low to block Stewart. When Stewart cut down high -- knowing he couldn't go any lower because of the line -- to try another pass, Busch followed in an attempt to block -- and got hooked right into the outside wall to trigger a massive wreck.

Perhaps the most controversial of all, though, came in Talladega in Ocotber 2008. Regan Smith, then a rookie driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., passed Tony Stewart coming off the tri-oval on the last lap and beat Stewart to the finish line. But Smith went below the yellow line -- believing all bets were off on the last lap -- and NASCAR declared Stewart the winner.

In the 2009 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. triggered the Big One on the backstretch; he got a run on Brian Vickers coming off Turn 2, and when he ducked low to make the pass, Vickers blocked. Junior went below the yellow line and tried to merge back onto the track without passing Vickers. He clipped the left rear of Vickers' car, triggering a multi-car incident.

Given the above evidence -- and plenty more, if I felt like looking for it -- one could argue the yellow line has caused more problems than it solved. I believe this rule was directly responsible for Edwards' crash at Talladega and Busch's at Daytona -- if Keselowski could've gone lower to avoid Edwards without lifting, he likely would've -- while the other two resulted in controversial finishes that leave few people satisfied.

Smith thought the rule didn't apply on the last lap; so did one of the announcers in the ESPN booth. You could call that simple ignorance, or you could chalk it up to poor communication on NASCAR's part.

Does the yellow line rule save wrecks? Possibly, though now that we've lost the big packs in favor of two-car tandem drafting, that's debatable. But the rule has caused as many wrecks as it's saved -- and frankly, in the days of 35-car drafts, dozens of cars were going to get wadded up at some point anyway.

Daytona and Talladega are treacherous beasts, regardless of the rules package in place. The yellow line rule is an example of a rule designed with good intentions that wound up with unintended consequences. It's time NASCAR took a good, hard look at doing away with the rule once and for all, because it's largely become nothing more than a headache.

Restrictor-plate racing is stressful enough; why add to it with dumb rules?

Scott Worthy of Hall Consideration

The latest round of 25 names eligible for the 2012 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame were announced on Tuesday, including five brand-new names: H. Clay Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter and Leonard Wood.

But one name remains conspicuously absent: Wendell Scott.

I'll admit, if you only look at the numbers, Scott's name should be nowhere near this list. He only won one race in his entire Cup career -- Dec. 1, 1963 in Jacksonville, Fla. -- and race promoters initially named second-place Buck Baker the win (even though Scott won by two laps). It wasn't until the celebration ended that NASCAR named Scott the winner -- giving him his check, but not the trophy.

Why would something like that happen? Because Scott was black. Life in America was tough for African-Americans in 1963 as it was, but imagine how hard it had to be for an African-American trying to break through in NASCAR, a sport with deep Southern roots.

The track denied Scott his win because officials didn't want him in Victory Lane, kissing the white trophy girl. The speedway never gave Scott a trophy; it wasn't until this year that the track offered a trophy to his family.

The case for Scott's candidacy goes beyond his on-track performance. He's been called the Jackie Robinson of NASCAR, which isn't entirely accurate. But given that Scott was the first African-American to run in NASCAR's premiere series -- and the only African-American to ever win a NASCAR national touring series race -- gives him a case based on pioneer status.

It's not like NASCAR has ignored Scott; on the night of the 2011 Daytona 500, ESPN, in association with NASCAR Media Group, produced an outstanding documentary telling his story, and NASCAR honored Scott in Las Vegas earlier this season with car decals celebrating the 50th anniversary of Scott's first career start.

But was it enough?

Some affiliated with NASCAR on the media end have argued for Scott's addition to the 25 names that will be voted on; five new members will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January.

Jim Utter, of The Charlotte Observer and, has been the most adamant, while Dustin Long of Landmark Newspapers and also posed the question. And while I agree that Scott at least deserves consideration, there's one thing holding him back.

Whereas Robinson kicked the door down for African-American baseball players, effectively shifting the game's demographic forever, Scott didn't do the same for NASCAR. There has been a decided lack of high-profile African-American drivers in NASCAR since Scott's time behind the wheel.

Willy T. Ribbs made a few NASCAR starts, but he never found his footing. Bill Lester had a solid couple years in what was the Craftsman Truck Series, but he only made a handful of Cup starts. Marc Davis never found his footing in the Nationwide Series, and NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program has had, to be polite, mixed results.

To be perfectly frank, women and international drivers have had a larger presence in NASCAR than African-Americans.

That's not to say NASCAR doesn't have its share of African-American fans or African-American crew members, because it does. But stardom and prominence in NASCAR will always be reserved for the drivers (and the occasional crew chief), and the reality is ... since Scott, there have been no prominent African-American drivers in NASCAR.

Sadly, that puts a little bit of a dent in Scott's status as a pioneer.

There's a reason some within the sport are hopeful that Darrell Wallace Jr. can become a star in the sport. The young man is making a name for himself in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series; if he can get that big break into one of NASCAR's top national series in the next year or so, I think the sport -- and Scott -- would benefit.

Robinson is called a pioneer because he forever changed the face of baseball; Scott, for all his bravery and success, has not done that. Through no fault of his own, NASCAR is lacking as much diversity among its drivers today as it did back in the 1960s.

I think Scott should've been among the 25 names announced Tuesday, because I think he deserves the conversation. We need to talk about his career and what he meant to the sport. Maybe his legacy is still being written; maybe it won't have the immediacy that Robinson did for baseball.

I don't think he's a Hall of Famer yet, but what's the harm in talking about it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Johnson's Thrilling Win on the Up-and-Up

Shortly after Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer to the line by .002 seconds to win the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday -- tying the closest finish in NASCAR history since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993 -- some intimated that Johnson shouldn't have won because he dipped below the double yellow-line in the tri-0val.

Was it a legitimate concern, or was it merely sour grapes from those not thrilled with who won?

Watch the video below of the finish -- in which four pairs of cars came to the finish line side-by-side-by-side-by-side -- to judge for yourself.

<a href="" target="_new" title="Wild finish at Talladega">Video: Wild finish at Talladega</a>

It seems, to some degree, that the yellow line rule has caused more trouble than it's saved -- I'll get into that a little more in a post later today -- but in examining the Johnson case, there really is no question.

Yes, at one point, Johnson's left-side tires -- as well as those of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who pushed Johnson to victory -- touched the yellow line. But that was not in the act of passing; as the 48 and 88 got their run coming off Turn 4, the tandem cut low, beneath Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Martin dropped low in an attempt to block Johnson and Earnhardt, and the 48 and 88 dipped lower to avoid contact.

In fact, a replay from Junior's in-car camera shows that even with the evasive maneuver, the 5 and the 88 still made contact. Once Martin realized he couldn't block Johnson and Earnhardt, he got back in line and tried to latch back onto Gordon's rear bumper.

He failed, though, finishing eighth.

Once Martin got back in line, Johnson and Earnhardt -- who still had not passed the 24 and 5 -- came back up above the yellow line. Then Johnson and Earnhardt made the pass.

By the letter of the law -- where you cannot go below the yellow line and improve your position -- Johnson's move was legal. This was nothing like the situation with Regan Smith in 2008, where he clearly went below the line and passed Tony Stewart for what he thought was his first career victory.

Johnson and Earnhardt dipped onto the yellow line to avoid contact, then when the contact was averted, the duo got back off the yellow line and proceeded to make the winning pass.

The video clearly speaks for itself; in reality, I wonder if those bitching about Johnson breaking a NASCAR rule and getting away with it are simply unhappy about who won the race and have to resort to accusations of cheating to sate their anger.

If that's the case, it's really pathetic. Grow up, people. Johnson was bound to win a race at some point this season. Get over it and enjoy the fact that we had one hell of a finish at a track that's known for amazing finishes.

I don't like who won anymore than the rest of you, but he won fair and square.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Oh So Close For Junior

Kevin Harvick won the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, but the story isn't so much that he's won back-to-back races, leading a grand total of seven laps in the process. No, it's more about who Harvick beat for the win.

Namely, one Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Harvick passed Junior with four laps to go on Sunday, robbing Junior and the majority of the 65,000 fans in attendance of that elusive victory. Junior has now gone 99 races without a win, dating all the way back to 2008, when he won at Michigan on a fuel mileage gamble.

Since the start of the 2005 season, Junior has three wins, two of which came on fuel mileage.

But things are definitely heading in the right direction for Junior and the rest of the No. 88 team. He's eighth in points heading into Saturday night's race at Texas, and Junior has three top-10s through six races -- as well as an 11th at Bristol and a 12th at Fontana. Were it not for a late wreck in the Daytona 500, he might be even higher up in the standings.

But even by his own admission, Junior and the No. 88 aren't in race-winning form yet. Hard to believe, considering he was four laps away from victory on Sunday, but if nothing else, his runner-up effort -- and the move he put on Kyle Busch to take the lead with 21 laps to go -- show that things are headed in the right direction.

A lot of it is likely due to Steve Letarte. Not that Letarte is any better a crew chief than Lance McGrew or Tony Eury Jr. -- both of whom are proven in NASCAR circles -- but Letarte and Junior obviously have chemistry. Junior's giving Letarte good information and Letarte is making sure Junior doesn't get down on himself when things go wrong.

I'm not saying Junior will be a title contender this season -- I'm not even ready to proclaim him a Chase driver yet -- but the team and the driver are trending up for the first time since his hot start to the 2008 season. He could win a race or two this season (maybe this weekend at Texas, or next weekend at Talladega), but that's as far as I'm willing to go.

Junior gave fans a glimpse of what once was and what once again could be on Sunday in Martinsville. Were it not for Harvick playing the role of spoiler (or bad guy, if you want to use his words), that first win might've come sooner than anyone imagined.

But he's not quite there yet. Steps are being made, though, and I think it's only a matter of time.