Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Truck and Nationwide Highlights: Nashville

With the Sprint Cup Series enjoying its final off weekend of the season, the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series took center stage at Nashville Superspeedway this past Friday and Saturday.

Dillon Making a Charge: Austin Dillon, one of the preseason favorites to win the Camping World Truck Series title this season (and my pick) had a slow start to the season with a 20th-place effort at Daytona, but has started to turn it up of late. After finishing second to Matt Crafton at Iowa, Dillon picked up his first win of the season Friday night at Nashville.

The win was coming -- on top of his strong finish at Iowa, Dillon had a potential winning truck at Kentucky. On top of that, Dillon has started every race in the top five this season outside of a 17th-place qualifying effort at Dover. Qualifying up front makes running these races easier, especially considering how short races in this series usually are.

Dillon rides momentum into Lucas Oil Raceway this weekend and into the second half of the season, and he appears to be the only driver capable of keeping up with, and running down, points leader Johnny Sauter. Sauter has been the model of consistency this season -- he finished second to Dillon on Friday, minimizing his loss in the points -- so Dillon will likely need to keep up his recent pace to catch him.

Still, with 13 races left, Sauter's 18-point lead over Dillon is nowhere near safe.

Stenhouse Continues to Grow: The disappointment on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s face following Saturday night's Nationwide Series race was palpable. He didn't really care that he'd moved up to second in the points, five behind leader Reed Sorenson; he was too busy lamenting the fact that he finished second to winner Carl Edwards.

Stenhouse, who picked up his first career win at Iowa earlier this season, has shown tremendous growth and speed so far this season -- as evidenced by his finishes and his standing in the points. But more than anything, his disappointment Saturday night spoke volumes. Sure, he lost the race to a teammate (and, surprise, a Cup driver), but you can tell how badly Stenhouse wants to win -- which is impressive, considering the struggles he had a year ago.

Stenhouse has to be considered a co-favorite for the title, along with Stenhouse and Elliott Sadler (who lost the points lead after breaking a rear gear late in the race. Though Sorenson also has a win this season (at Road America), no Nationwide Series regular has shown the speed and the consistent ability to run with the Cup drivers like Stenhouse.

Were it not for the Cup drivers, Stenhouse might have three or four wins by now. As it stands, I think he's been the class for the Nationwide Series field this season, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he hoisted the trophy at Homestead in November.

A Bad Move: I realize I'm a bit late weighing in on the Nationwide Series moving from Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly O'Reilly Raceway Park, formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) next season to race instead at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the same weekend at the Brickyard 400, but since Indy is the next stop for the Cup Series, now seems like a good time to mention it.

I hate this move. No two ways about it.

I'm the last person to gripe about tracks losing dates (I was bummed when Rockingham lost its dates, but I understood why), but I think NASCAR's decision to run the Nationwide Series at the Brickyard is wrong for a couple of reasons.

It's clear fans are growing weary of stock cars at IMS. The answer to this problem is not more stock cars at IMS. Attendance for the Brickyard 400 was emebarrassingly small last season; yeah, 140,000 fans sounds really good, but when your track can hold as many as 300,000 fans, it's a problem.

Between long stretches of single-file racing and the 2008 tire debacle, I'm beginning to wonder if the Brickyard has worn out its NASCAR welcome. Somehow, I don't think adding the Nationwide Series is going to change things all that much.

As much as I love the Brickyard, let's be honest; NASCAR at the 2.5-mile rectangle isn't the most exciting show in the world. Do we really think the Nationwide Series will produce a better race? It certainly won't put on a better show than it does at the short track now known as Lucas Oil Raceway.

The Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races at LOR are among the most anticipated and action-packed of the season. Whereas most races in those series struggle to sell tickets, LOR never seems to have attendance problems. The reason is simple: fans love the close-quarters racing.

We need more short tracks in NASCAR, not less.

No offense to the Nationwide Series or its drivers, but letting NASCAR's "Triple A" series run on the historic track takes away some of the mystique. Does winning at the Brickyard really mean all that much if a Cup driver can just drop down and steal a win? Because let's face it; that's exactly what's going to happen.

So enjoy the races at LOR this weekend as much as you can, because as of next season, they won't be around anymore. Which is a damn shame, because that's some of the best racing we'll see all year. Instead, we'll get more single-file parades around IMS, and Kyle Busch will probably steal another win that everyone will try to make us think means more than it really does.

NASCAR really dropped the ball on this one. Big time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Post-New Hampshire Musings

A gathering of thoughts and opinions as we head into the final off-week of the Sprint Cup season:

An Awesome Promotion: I remember, when NASCAR's top division was still called the Winston Cup Series, such promotions as the Winston Million and the Winston No Bull 5 -- programs designed to give drivers the chance at $1 million if they won select races. They were cool ideas that emphasized winning and gave both sponsor R.J. Reynolds and NASCAR an extra bit of exposure.

Since entering the sport in 2004, Sprint has created no such program ... until now.

NASCAR and Sprint announced in Loudon, N.H. on Sunday the Sprint Summer Showdown, which would have a combined $3 million payout after the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway over Labor Day weekend. Winners of the next five Sprint Cup races -- at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol -- will go into the Atlanta race eligible for the money.

If a driver who won any of those five races also wins at Atlanta, the driver will win $1 million for himself, $1 million for his charity of choice and $1 million for a fan.

Fans can enter here.

Given NASCAR's increased emphasis on winning -- using wins as Chase seeding, offering the final two Chase spots as wild card spots based on wins, giving three bonus points to the driver who wins a race -- this promotion fits the bill. It also increases interest by getting charities and fans involved, and the Sprint Summer Showdown has the potential to make the traditional summer lull more exciting.

All around, I think this is a great move for the sport.

A Made-Up Number: A lot has been made of the fact that Kyle Busch has won 100 combined races between the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series. Frankly, it's all contrived bullshit.

Tell me: before Busch came along, when have we ever lumped together a driver's wins among all the national NASCAR touring series? Never. We talk about David Pearson's 105 Cup wins, not the fact that he's got 106 total wins if you count his Bristol Nationwide Series win from 1982. What about Darrell Waltrip (84 Cup wins, 13 Nationwide wins = 97 total) or the late Dale Earnhardt (76 Cup wins, 21 Nationwid wins = 97 total)?

Or Mark Martin, who has 96 total wins between the three national series?

No, we don't do that with them. We mention Earnhardt and Waltrip as Cup legends; when we talk about Martin, we mention how, until this past weekend, he was the all-time Nationwide Series wins leader ... or we talk about his 40 Cup wins. Not both.

I used to think Busch's 100-win "milestone" was a media-driven thing ... until Busch paraded around with a flag with the number 100 on it, then signed a billboard in Victory Lane commemorating win 100. Oh, and there are shirts for sale commemorating win No. 100.

Look, if you wanna make a big deal of the fact that Busch has tied Martin in Nationwide Series wins, that's fine. It's an impressive achievement, especially when you consider how quickly Busch tied the mark. His 22 Sprint Cup wins at the age of 26 are also impressive.

But lumping all his wins into one category and placing his name on the same list as Pearson and Richard Petty? That's a stretch -- to put it politely.

Wonders Never Cease: Remember before the start of the season, when I said Matt Crafton wasn't a legitimate title contender in the Camping World Truck Series because he couldn't win races?


Crafton held off Austin Dillon for his second career win Saturday night at Iowa Speedway, vaulting the driver of the No. 88 to fifth in points, 44 behind leader Johnny Sauter. Crafton has six top-10s in 11 starts this season, and the win could catapult him back into title contention -- especially since no one seems to be dominating.

Don't let Sauter's 22-point lead over Dillon fool you; no one is running away with this championship as we near the halfway point of the season. Things are just as open heading into Nashville this weekend as they were in the season opener at Daytona.

And if Crafton can become a consistent Victory Lane threat? Then I may just be willing to eat some crow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Special Comment: Completely Unacceptable

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series debut at Kentucky Speedway was a travesty. Not because Kyle Busch picked up his third win of the season, and not because the field strung out and we saw a lot of single-file racing.

Because as many as 20,000 fans -- with tickets -- never saw a lap.

Seeing as how I follow most of the NASCAR media contingent on Twitter, it became clear to me early on Saturday that traffic surrounding Kentucky Speedway would be a problem. Tales of back-ups on Interstate 71 -- the main road leading to the track -- were rampant, and driver Denny Hamlin even tweeted that he might miss the drivers' meeting because of the traffic.

Ultimately, many fans (who left as many as six or seven hours prior) got to the track and parked after the green flag dropped around 7:45 p.m. Even more fans never found a place to park, and were turned away by track security and Kentucky State Police around halfway as the track started planning exit routes for the post-race traffic.

Still more fans became so frustrated while sitting in traffic that they turned around and went home, giving up on seeing the first Cup race at a track that had clamored for one since it opened in 2000.

Think about that: you pour an untold amount of money into buying tickets for a Cup race (which may or may not include hotel room, meal money and gas fare). Then you spend the day on the road, nervous with anticipation for the race ... only to turn around and head home without ever seeing a lap.

Imagine if that was to be your first-ever Cup race, too. My first Cup race was to be the fall race at Martinsville in 2001, but it rained and I couldn't go back on Monday. So I missed my first Cup race, but that pales in comparison to this. You can't control Mother Nature; the debacle at Kentucky was avoidable.

Track owner Bruton Smith added 40,000 seats to bump the track's capacity to 107,000, then he took a date away from Atlanta Motor Speedway. But Smith and his Kentucky Speedway employees never once thought about accounting for the heavy traffic, or the port-a-potties in the parking lots, or the bathrooms and concession stands in the grandstands.

Oh, fans couldn't bring coolers into the stands, either.

I-71 backups stretching more than 10 miles in length three hours before the start of the race are unacceptable -- but not nearly as unacceptable as the track's response. The track released two statements -- one during Saturday night's race and another on Sunday -- but neither one offered an apology.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is expected to announce on Monday a deal for fans turned away at Kentucky. Talladega Superspeedway issued a scathing statement on Sunday reminding fans that the Alabama track "knows how to put on a race weekend."

Look, I've attended anywhere from three to five races a year for the last 10 years; I understand that, to some degree, traffic is always going to be an issue. When you have anywhere from 60,000-150,000 people entering and leaving a place at the same time, there are going to be backups.

But in my experiences at Richmond, Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona and Dover, I've never found traffic so bad that I got to the track late ... or turned around to come home ... or got turned away with ticket in-hand because of a lack of parking. And every time there was an issue of any sort at the tracks I mentioned, it was almost always resolved the next time I visited.

Those tracks listen to their fans; will Kentucky? More importantly, will NASCAR make Kentucky listen? If I'm NASCAR, I make it abundantly clear to Smith and his track that if things aren't improved dramatically for the 2012 race, the track will no longer host a Cup Series race.

Heck, I'd threaten to take away the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, too. Call it punishing the fans if you want, but if the track can't handle that influx of people, if it can't take care of the fans, then the track doesn't deserve to be hosting nationally-sanctioned NASCAR races.

This whole episode was pathetic. Inexcusable. Unacceptable.

The fans are the life-blood of racing. Without the fans, there are no races. People accuse NASCAR of a lot of things, but I've never bought the fact that NASCAR -- and the tracks -- doesn't care about the fans.

I've heard of fans who have already decided to never attend another race at Kentucky. That's not something to be dismissed or taken lightly. Kentucky Speedway has to make it right to the 20,000 fans who paid for a ticket but never saw a lap -- I say a full refund and/or a free ticket to next year's race.

Hell, I'd throw in a $25 gas card for all the gas fans burned sitting in traffic.

I'd also make it right to the fans who did show: more port-a-potties in the parking lots, more parking spaces, more camping spaces, better concession stands, better in-track bathrooms. In conjunction with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I'd make the traffic situation more bearable by adding roads leading into and out of the facility.

Don't tell me the track's rural location makes that a challenge, either; both Bristol and Martinsville are "middle-of-nowhere" tracks, and they don't have nearly the traffic issues Kentucky experienced.

This debacle was a black eye, both for Kentucky Speedway and for NASCAR. Even if NASCAR ultimately had nothing to do with this (the tracks handle logistical things like traffic and facilities, not NASCAR), this episode still reflects poorly on the sanctioning body and the sport. To this point, the 2011 season has been fantastic, and this sort of black eye is the last thing NASCAR needs.

The sport is trying to get fans to come back in a shaky economy; something like this will not do the sport any favors.

Ultimately, single-file racing doesn't really bug me; not every race is going to be a three-wide crashfest, and I can always find something about a race that I enjoy. Simply starting the engines is enough to get me riled up for a NASCAR race, no matter where it is. Hearing fans constantly bitch about how boring it all is pisses me off to no end.

But you know what pisses me off more? Fans who bought tickets never getting to the track or seeing a lap of racing, because the track didn't have the foresight or the common sense to realize the situation in which they'd found themselves. I wasn't even one of the fans ticketed to go to the race, and this whole thing pisses me off.

Smith obviously knew a Cup race at Kentucky would be huge -- he wouldn't have added 40,000 seats otherwise. But to do nothing about the traffic or the facilities for the fans who did manage to get there? There's no excuse.

If I were in charge, I'd give Kentucky Speedway one more chance. If this happens again in 2012, then the track loses its date. The sad part is, a lot of fans probably won't give Kentucky that second chance.