Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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.

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