Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Boys, Have At It -- But Not Too Much

Under normal circumstances, the NASCAR world would still be celebrating Regan Smith's upset win in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway this past Saturday (yes, you read that right; Regan Smith won the Southern 500).

But thanks to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, circumstances became anything but normal.

A quick recap: in the closing laps of Saturday's race, Busch and Harvick were beating and banging on each other -- a situation that wound up costing Clint Bowyer a good finish, as he was on the bottom of the other two in a three-wide mess coming off Turn 4. Busch hit Harvick, who hit Bowyer, who spun into the inside wall.

As the caution waved, Busch hooked Harvick's right rear quarter panel, sending the No. 29 spinning into the outside wall. Cue the green-white-checkered finish. Cue Smith beating Carl Edwards to the checkered flag. Cue post-race antics by Busch and Harvick.

After a brief game of cat-and-mouse (where Harvick attempted to stop in front of Busch to express his displeasure, only to have Busch back away), Harvick pulled into the pits with Busch behind him. Harvick got out of his car and approached Busch's window to throw a punch ... at which point, Busch punched the gas and sent Harvick's driverless car head-first into the inside pits wall.

No one was hurt, but Harvick's crew was ... shall we say, less than pleased.

Both drivers were called to the NASCAR hauler, and Harvick insinuated afterward that whatever feud he had with Busch wasn't over. On Tuesday, NASCAR handed out $25,000 fines to both drivers, as well as four weeks of probation.

No points, no suspensions. Chump change fines and probation -- and if you've been following NASCAR for any length of time, you realize just how meaningless probation is.

I get that, in a sense, NASCAR painted itself in a corner prior to last season with its "Boys, have at it" edict. How can the sanctioning body tell the drivers to police themselves, then step in with a harsh penalty when the drivers do just that? But in this instance, because of Busch's actions on pit road -- which could've easily hurt someone -- I think NASCAR needed to act.

NASCAR admitted the fines and probation were for what happened on pit road after the race and not for what happened on the race track. But if we're going to use that logic, then Busch deserves a harsher penalty; while Harvick merely threw a punch -- designed to hurt only Busch -- Busch punting Harvick's car out of the way while trying to flee could've caused even more damage.

What if Harvick's unmanned car ran over a NASCAR official or a wandering pit crew member? It's one thing to take your frustrations out on each other on the track, but on pit road when there are people wandering around?

Precedent doesn't really matter -- partly because NASCAR has never let precedent dictate its decisions (unless we're talking about cheating and failing inspection). But NASCAR stuck to its guns last season when Edwards and Brad Keselowski were in the middle of their feud, in large part because NASCAR tied its own hands with "Boys, have at it."

However, there's "Boys, have at it," and there's what Edwards did last year at Atlanta and Gateway. There's "Boys, have at it," and there's what Busch did on Saturday.

I think NASCAR can actually have it both ways; it can still let the drivers police themselves, and it can still drop the hammer when a driver steps over the line. It begs the question what the line actually is, but I think most sensible people can agree Busch crossed it on pit road Saturday night, just as Edwards crossed that line twice last year.

I have no issue with Harvick being punished; like last year, when NASCAR placed Keselowski on probation, it's likely a preventative measure designed to keep Harvick from retaliating any time soon. I don't think Harvick would let something like that stop him, but I think that's the reasoning here.

But why isn't Busch's penalty more severe? He was in the wrong far more than Harvick was, and his actions were potentially dangerous for people not even involved in the fracas. Harvick's actions would've only hurt Busch; Busch's actions could've taken out an innocent bystander or two.

Something tells me we haven't seen the last of Harvick vs. Busch this season -- in part because NASCAR decided not to step in and truly take control of the situation.