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.

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