Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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.

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