Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Monday, June 6, 2011

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.

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