Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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.