Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patrick To Make It Official

ESPN's Marty Smith reported on Wednesday that IndyCar star Danica Patrick will officially announce her intentions to enter NASCAR full-time next week. Patrick will run the entire Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports next season, while running a handful of Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing -- before making the full jump to Cup in 2013.

Frankly, it's about time.

I didn't have an opinion one way or another about whether Patrick should come to NASCAR or stay in the IZOD IndyCar Series -- where she has one career win and is easily the most recognizable name in the series. Her departure will leave IndyCar with some issues (more than it already faces, given the finish to last weekend's race at Loudon, N.H.), but the most important thing here is the fact that she's finally made a decision.

Patrick is the middle of her second season of running a full IndyCar schedule for Andretti Autosport, while running a part-time Nationwide Series schedule in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 7 car. She finished a career-best fourth at Las Vegas in March, and Patrick led several laps in Daytona in July, threatening for the win before being caught in a last-lap wreck and finishing 10th.

I've said before she needs to choose, because jumping back and forth between two completely different race cars throughout a season did her no favors -- in either series. A stock car and an open-wheel car are completely different creatures, and hopping between them can make it hard for Patrick to get a rhythm in either series.

By making her choice, Patrick is removing one of her biggest hurdles to success. She's also making a choice that could improve her career.

Make no mistake: this is not a money move. Patrick is set for life already, and she was going to the bank regardless of where she strapped on a helmet -- you can thank such companies as Motorola and for that. She'll make a mint in NASCAR, especially if she succeeds, but that's not the driving force here.

Obviously, Patrick enjoys running stock cars. She enjoys rubbing fenders and mixing it up on the track -- something she can't do in an IndyCar. She's also not much of a road racer, and with the IndyCar Series migrating more and more toward road and street courses, it's no longer really the place for her.

The Nationwide Series only had three road courses on the schedule this season, and will likely have two or three next season -- leaving plenty of oval-track action for her to experience.

Results are also indisputable; Patrick's 2011 NASCAR experience has been much more successful so far than her 2010 foray. She's clearly more comfortable in a stock car than she was in the beginning, and it'll be interesting to see how she progresses as she gets an entire season under her belt (while also seeing just how much of a grind the NASCAR season is -- it's about twice as long as the IndyCar slate).

And if I'm being honest, the attention for NASCAR will be a win-win. Regardless of how one feels about Patrick as a race car driver, there's little doubt regarding her national appeal and the fact that she draws attention to whatever series in which she's competing. You don't think NASCAR is salivating at the thought of her fighting for a Nationwide Series championship next year?

In the end, this could be a good move for Patrick -- especially since she's willing to spend a full year in the Nationwide Series before making the plunge into the Cup Series. Previous open-wheel drivers to make the transition to NASCAR -- Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, all with far better records than Patrick -- did not make that step, and it showed in their results.

Patrick could be a success in NASCAR. IndyCar without her? Well, that might be a different story.

Special Comment: Safety First -- Always

There's no question NASCAR has made significant strides in driver safety in the past decade. Following a slew of fatalities in 2000 and 2001 -- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt -- NASCAR finally took seriously the sort of safety measures that other forms of racing had long ago adopted.

Full-face helmets became mandatory, as did head-and-neck restraint devices (commonly known as the HANS device). Over the course of several years, most tracks on the NASCAR circuit implemented SAFER barriers, energy-absorbing walls meant to divert force of an impact away from the driver.

Even the new-generation car in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series was designed primarily with safety in mind.

First, the good news: no driver has lost his or her life in a NASCAR national touring series race since Earnhardt in February 2001. But while there's no bad news, the reality remains: there is still work to be done.

Just ask David Ragan, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin.

Or Brad Keselowski, for that matter.

Ignoring Keselowski for a moment (since the track where he was injured is not a NASCAR-sanctioned facility), consider the plights of Hamlin, Ragan and Reutimann this past Monday at Watkins Glen International.

Hamlin suffered a brake failure heading into the first turn in Monday's race, a hard right-hander following a lengthy straightaway. Barreling through the paved run-off area, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota slammed head-on into the guardrail, softened only by stacks of tires. Behind the guardrail stood a concrete post and a mound of dirt similar to what we used to see along the Long Pond straightaway at Pocono.

Video of the brutal hit:

Hamlin credited the safety features within the car, as well as a new seven-point seat belt he'd been wearing, for the fact that he walked away from the wreck. The tire barrier also helped, and the guardrail did give under the force of the collision, but wouldn't Hamlin have been better served to crash head-first into a SAFER barrier?

On the last lap, Ragan and Reutimann were involved in a violent crash along the esses. Ragan was tapped by Boris Said and spun head-on into a guardrail jutting out at an awkward angle -- with no tire barrier. Ragan shot back across the track, collecting Reutimann and sending him head-on into another guardrail at a bad angle.

The force of that impact sent Reutimann upside down, shot him back across the track and into another guardrail. Both Ragan and Reutimann emerged from their vehicles, sore but uninjured, but Reutimann's firesuit suffered a tear in the left leg.

Video of that incident:

Watkins Glen should investigate the possibility of adding SAFER barriers at all of the above positions. Not only that, the track should look into the awkward angle its walls take in places where openings are available for safety vehicles to get onto the track. There has to be a way for safety vehicles to get onto the track, while not leaving drivers vulnerable to the kinds of impacts Ragan and Reutimann suffered.

Las Vegas and Richmond have each had that issue, and both tracks have addressed it. Other tracks have added SAFER barriers over the years where there had previously been none. Safety is a constantly-moving target, and NASCAR (as well as other racing series) must be ever-vigilant.

It's easy to look at the above incidents and call them freak accidents, things that would likely never happen again. That might be true, but auto racing is so unpredictable, by its very nature, that one can never assume something will never happen. NASCAR and the tracks it races on must be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to ensuring the safety of its competitors and fans.

Look, auto racing will never be 100 percent safe; the only way to ensure 100 percent safety is to never climb into a race car in the first place. But there is always work to be done to make the sport safer than it was last year, last month, last week.

Monday's race highlighted some safety vulnerabilities at Watkins Glen, and if the track hopes to continue hosting NASCAR's top two national series, it must address those concerns before next year's races. If the concerns are not properly addressed, then NASCAR should stop going to that track.

Ragan, Reutimann and Hamlin are still with us and will race this weekend at Michigan thanks to the safety advancements made over the past decade. That's worthy of praise, but as Monday's race showed us, we're not where we need to be.

Not even close.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Almost There

With four races to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- and all three national touring series more than halfway through their respective seasons -- a smattering of thoughts and observations as we head down the stretch.

Road Warrior: Conventional wisdom says the racing gods owed Marcos Ambrose one after he lost the Sprint Cup race at Infineon Raceway. While picking up his first career Cup win on Monday at Watkins Glen makes for a nice story -- it makes Ambrose eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown and puts him in the Chase wild card conversation -- I have trouble buying into the karma angle.

Ambrose wasn't robbed at Sonoma last season; he made a mistake trying to save fuel under caution and cost himself the win. There's no racing gods or a track owing him anything in that instance; Ambrose made the mistake of cutting off his engine while heading uphill and the car wouldn't re-fire.

Ambrose screwed up that day. On Monday, Kyle Busch screwed up on the green-white-checkered restart. Ambrose and Brad Keselowski pounced, and by the time the caution came out on the last lap for all manner of chaos, Ambrose was out front.

The former V8 Supercar champion (side note: catch a V8 Supercar race on Speed if you can -- it's really entertaining stuff) has proven to be one of the more likable personalities in the Cup garage, and he's proven time and again his proficiency on the road courses. Prior to Monday, Ambrose was a three-time winner at Watkins Glen in the Nationwide Series, and he has also been strong at Sonoma and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

Now, he's a Cup Series winner.

Don't simply write Ambrose off as a road course specialist, either; he's proven more than competitive on several oval tracks in his short NASCAR career. Bristol is one of his best tracks, and he's proven competitive at Atlanta and Charlotte. His Richard Petty Motorsports team has shown flashes of brilliance this season, and lets be honest: seeing a Petty team in Victory Lane is often cause to celebrate.

Ambrose deserved to win Monday's race, because he was fast and did everything he needed to do at the end. But let's not act like the cosmic scales are balanced because of what happened at Sonoma last season.

Tough as Nails: When Brad Keselowski broke his left ankle and suffered other injuries during a testing crash at Road Atlanta a week and a half ago -- where his brakes failed and he hit a concrete wall at over 100 mph -- there was a lot of speculation about how he would fare at Pocono and Watkins Glen, two tracks notorious for hard braking and shifting.

His Chase chances, already slim, would take another hit, everyone said. Keselowski would be lucky just to finish either race, they pontificated. At the time, it seemed like a smart thought: as a left-foot braker, Keselowski would be at a disadvantage at both tracks -- and that's not even taking into account how sore his lower back was.

Well, he won Pocono ... then finished second at Watkins Glen.

In the past three races, Keselowski has gone from 23rd to 14th in points, and his Pocono win gives him two for the season. If the Chase started this weekend, Keselowski would be the first wild-card driver.

Drivers excelling while hurt is nothing new; I remember the late Dale Earnhardt setting a track record at Watkins Glen one year while driving one-handed because of a broken collar bone. Terry Labonte wrapped up the 1996 championship while driving with a broken wrist. Ricky Rudd once won at Martinsville despite severely burning his back.

How Keselowski managed to excel the past two weeks is almost beyond me; I think he's proven to the NASCAR community that he can succeed as a Cup driver -- and if we're being honest, there have been times earlier this season where that was in question.

Even if Keselowski makes the Chase this year -- which I think he will -- I don't see him contending for the title. But don't count him out next season.

He Said, Said Said: I find the scuffle between Boris Said and Greg Biffle following Monday's race incredibly laughable and pointless -- mostly because Said shows up so infrequently in the Cup Series that there's really no point in getting into it with him.

Honestly, Said shows up maybe twice a year -- Sonoma and Watkins Glen -- so why would a full-time Cup driver spend so much energy and anger on him, even if he is responsible for a vicious wreck at the end of Monday's race (more on that in a later post)?

Biffle reportedly punched Said through the window of his car after the race, before Said emerged from the car and had to be restrained by several people. Then Said went on ESPN to call Biffle a scaredy-cat and promise a fist sandwich in the future. Biffle took to Twitter (... really?) to blame Said for the wreck that shook up Biffle's Roush teammate David Ragan.

Considering we probably won't see Said at a Cup track until next summer, I really don't see the point in all this. It's not like Said will be at Michigan next week, or in Bristol in two weeks, or Richmond next month. We likely won't see the road specialist until Sonoma next season, so I find it really odd that he and Biffle are this animated.

Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson think they should cool it.