Friday, December 23, 2011

Kurt Busch finds a ride, but Silly Season still isn’t settled

Even though the biggest name of the NASCAR offseason found a ride, the Silly Season surprisingly still contains several unknowns.

Kurt Busch found a landing spot in the #51 Phoenix Racing car after he mutually separated with Roger Penske and left the #22 car Dec. 5 following his tirade in the final race of the season Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

However, that move does little to clear up the jumbled mess his leaving Penske Racing created.

After Busch left the #22 car it looked like he had very few options for a new ride, and that was true. The #51 car is certainly not a sought-after ride by championship-winning drivers. That car is usually battling for a spot in the top 35 in the points standings rather than battling for championship.

Still, most people thought A.J. Allmendinger was going to stay in the #43 car and the seat in the #22 car would be left up for grabs to unemployed drivers such as David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers.

Instead, Best Buy left the #43 car, Penske chose Allmendinger,to drive the #22 car and the three previously mentioned unemployed drivers are still without a ride.

Busch had reportedly talked to Richard Petty Motorsports about driving the #43 car, and that would have cleared up a lot of speculation. Busch would go to the #43, Landon Cassill would stay in the #51 and everybody else would be out of luck.

But that’s not how it works this offseason. Busch ended up at the #51 car so speculation can run wild about who will drive the #43 car and how that team will piece together enough sponsorship to run full-time next season.

Ragan has been a contender for nearly every open ride since the season ended, but he has so far failed to get the job. He has been mentioned as an option for the #43 car, but more recent reports say Nationwide Series driver Aric Almirola might be the guy to get a shot in the #43 Ford.

If that happens, Ragan, Reutimann, Vickers and now Cassill will be in an even more dire position as we head into 2012. After an offseason where unexpected openings popped nearly every week, those three former Sprint Cup Series winners might be relagated to a Nationwide Series ride, at best.

Those scenarios will likely play out after the holidays, but the Busch situation is also still a bit up in the air.

Busch will drive the #51 car in the Cup series, but he also might run in the Nationwide Series for his brother’s team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. If he wanted to add another wild twist to this already crazy offseason, Kurt Busch could decide he doesn’t have a shot at the Chase in the #51 car and instead run for the championship in the Nationwide Series.

Since drivers can now only run for the championship in one series, he would effectively throw away the 2012 Cup season.

That would be a bold move considering there is no guarantee a big-time ride will become available after next season, and he might just have to make the best of his situation at the #51 car.

In any case, the 2012 starting grid is far from set, and Busch’s announcement that he found a job didn’t do much to straighten out where everyone will be by the time Speedweeks roll around at Daytona in February.

Busch’s move certainly filled in a puzzle piece, but it isn’t the final one we may have thought it would be when he left the #22 car a month ago.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Allmendinger's move creates even more questions in wild NASCAR offseason

The twists and turns of a crazy NASCAR offseason continue as a driver who already had a ride for 2012 landed in the #22 Dodge formerly driven by Kurt Busch.

A.J. Allmendinger gets the upgrade and will drive the yellow Shell/Pennzoil car for Roger Penske.

After Penske and Busch parted ways, much of the speculation for who would replace Busch logically steered toward drivers currently without a ride such as David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers.

But this year has left no room for logic. Once Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 we should’ve known something in the universe must be a bit sideways.

This offseason continued the wild ride and has been full of shocking announcements. From Busch leaving the #22 to Allmendinger taking that ride, this year’s offseason has been similar to a restrictor-plate race. After a few laps someone new and totally unexpected comes to the front.

Ragan reportedly had discussions with Penske Racing to drive the #22 car, but Allmendinger joined the party after his sponsor for the #43 car, Best Buy, left to be a part-time sponsor for other Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.

Allmendinger should do well in the #22 car and a Penske team of Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski should be exciting to watch.

However, this move is really just the first in what will be a fairly long line of driver moves. The three previously mentioned unemployed drivers don’t yet have a ride, and Busch is still trying to find a place to settle.

More logic reasoning would point toward Ragan taking over the #43 car since it is a Ford and he has driven a Ford his entire career, but once again, nothing should be taken for granted this offseason.

Reports last week said Busch might go to Richard Petty Motorsports, and now they suddenly have a spot open.

But, the problem in all of these ideas is the #43 car doesn’t currently have a sponsor. It was amazing Kenseth never attracted a sponsor until Best Buy jumped from one Ford to another, and now the job of finding a full-time sponsor with Daytona testing just three weeks away is going to be quite the project for the people at Richard Petty Motorsports.

The loser in all of this for the moment is Richard Petty Motorsports. One of its main sponsors left early in the week to go to other affiliated teams, and later in the week one of its drivers left.

After coming back a year ago from near bankruptcy to win a race and place both cars in the top 20 in points, the organization is suddenly right back in a very unstable situation.

In any case, the next couple of weeks are going to be interesting. Two teams, the #43 and #51 still need to announce their driver, but several drivers are still going to be without a ride.

Many people went into the offseason with the view that there weren’t many opportunities for drivers looking for a ride. That will still be true as the 2012 season starts, but there will several more drivers in a different uniform than we expected.

Hang on tight, folks. This offseason rollercoaster still has a lot of twists and turns left.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Joey Logano the big winner in latest crew chief shuffle

The crew chief dominoes continue to fall this offseason as Tony Stewart got his right-hand man back on his team and Joey Logano might have found his winning partner.

Longtime crew chief of the #20 car Greg Zipadelli announced his move Friday to Stewart-Haas Racing where he will serve as competition director and interim crew chief for Danica Patrick.

To fill Zipadelli’s old spot atop the #20 pit box, Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Jason Ratcliff to be the crew chief for Joey Logano in 2012.

Ratcliff moves up after seven years as crew chief for the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide Series team.

Two major names in NASCAR, Stewart and Patrick, may have gotten the man they wanted for their team, but Logano might be the driver who benefits the most from this switch.

Don’t get me wrong, Zipadelli will likely be excellent in his job as competition director and crew chief for Patrick. Zipadelli has been one of the best crew chiefs in the sport for more than a decade, and he will surely mesh well with Stewart and his organization.

Believe it or not, the Zipadelli-Stewart duo was not far behind the Gordon-Evernham and Johnson-Knaus pairings.

Stewart won 33 races and two championships with Zipadelli as his crew chief, the most success any driver not named Jimmie Johnson has had since Stewart entered the sport in 1999.

However, life has not been so wonderful for Zipadelli since Stewart left to form his own team in 2008. A young Logano jumped into the #20 Home Depot Toyota full time in 2009 and went on to win one fuel-mileage race that year. He hasn’t won since and has not finished higher than 16th in the points standings.

The adjustment had to be difficult for Zipadelli. He went from calling the shots for one of the greatest drivers of his generation to trying to develop the best thing since sliced bread. The problem was that normal sliced bread isn’t that amazing.

Logano has talent, no doubt, and he has won nine races in his four seasons in the Nationwide Series. But he came into the Sprint Cup Series as an 18-year-old who had not even competed in a full Nationwide Series season, and at times he has looked overwhelmed on the Cup side.

NASCAR drivers, like any other professional athlete, need time to develop. That’s a large part of why the truck and Nationwide series exist. Sure, Stewart achieved success in NASCAR pretty quickly, but he a substantial background in other forms of racing and was 28 years old by the time he was a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series.

Logano won't reach that age until 2018, and he still has a very bright future ahead of him.

That’s why it is important for Gibbs to bring in a guy such as Ratcliff now to work with Logano. Ratcliff has worked with plenty of young drivers, including Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, during his time in the Nationwide Series and would figure to be a much better fit than Zipadelli for a driver such as Logano.

This is the type of change Logano needed. He obviously wasn’t getting anywhere fast in his current situation, and now he might have the chance to settle in and steadily develop as the top-tier driver everyone thought they would see when he first entered the Cup series.

The #20 might not compete for a championship in 2012, but it should be toward the front of the field a lot more often.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

NASCAR starting grid will look much different in 2012

After a year where hardly any sponsors stepped up to fund big-time rides for new drivers, there will still be a bunch of people on new teams come Speedweeks in February at Daytona.

Sure, there may be one decent ride available at this point after Kurt Busch left the #22 Dodge vacant, but whoever fills that spot will be the seventh driver among those who finished in the top 30 in points last season to either strap into a car for a different Sprint Cup Series team in 2012 or still be without a ride for next season.

In addition to the driver changes, at least 12 crew chiefs who worked for teams that finished in the top 30 in points last year will sit atop a different pit box during the Daytona 500 than the one they sat on at the beginning of the 2011 season.

That means nearly one-third of the teams in the field for the Daytona 500 will look different than they did at that race a year ago. That is amazing considering all of the talk of there being no opportunities to move in the sport and everybody better stick at their current job because there likely won’t be another option.

Of course, many of these moves weren’t made by the choice of the driver or the crew chief. The crew chiefs for drivers such as Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya were replaced mid-season and crew chiefs for Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin were let go from their respective teams once the season ended.

Team lineups have been relatively stable during the past several years, but 2011 will go down as the year where a bunch of crew chiefs lost their job, or at least changed teams. This sort of shuffle happens every few years, and the stability during Jimmie Johnson’s run of five championships is remarkable considering every other team lost for five years in a row.

Overall, the group of Sprint Cup Series drivers has also remained pretty stable in the last five or six years. Early in the last decade, NASCAR had a large influx of young drivers enter the sport, but once the group of drivers such as Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray reached the Cup level, the pipeline of young drivers quickly shut off.

Just look at the rookies of the year for the past five seasons. Montoya and Joey Logano both finished 20th in the points in their rookie seasons, but the other three have failed to crack the top 30.

This current group of drivers might not have changed much in the past several years, but this year an entire new group of crew chiefs will take their spots atop the pit box for new teams.

One might think all of the crew chief changes could shuffle the running order at many of the races next season. However, just two of those changes happened to teams that finished in the top 10 in points, and one of them just won the championship. The teams that finished outside the top 10 needed to make changes because the current setup obviously wasn’t working too well.

All of the personnel changes could make for a season similar to 2011 where multiple drivers won their first race and no team really pulled away from the pack. Or, it could make for a season where the same top 10 teams dominate as the other teams work to build their chemistry and performance on the track.

For the sake of many race fans, here’s hoping we get another season where different teams show up at the front of the field each race.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Darian Grubb exactly what Joe Gibbs Racing needed

After winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and losing his job in the same week, Darian Grubb has found a new pit box for 2012.

Grubb will be the crew chief for Denny Hamlin’s #11 team after Stewart-Haas Racing released him following his championship run with Tony Stewart. Joe Gibbs Racing released Hamlin's former crew chief, Mike Ford, on Tuesday.

Grubb's presence could make a huge difference in the performance of not only the #11 team, but also the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization.

This wasn’t a stellar season for Gibbs by any means. Sure, two of his three cars made the Chase, but neither Hamlin nor Kyle Busch ever posed much of a threat to the final championship contenders.

Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the big-time organizations. There are haves and have-nots in the sport, and Gibbs is certainly one of the haves. But, this year it was on the lower end of the haves, especially after Hamlin narrowly missed winning the championship and beating Jimmie Johnson just one year ago.

Many people in the sport had high expectations coming into the season for Hamlin, as well as the #18 and #20 Gibbs cars driven by Busch and Joey Logano, respectively.

Hamlin was supposed to strongly contend for the title this season after finishing second and having eight wins in 2010.

This was supposed to be the year of the new Kyle Busch, and this was supposed to be the year Logano became a star in the Cup series and contend for a Chase spot after he posted five top-10s in the final six races to close out 2010.

Instead, Hamlin finished ninth in the points standings with only one win. Busch finished 12th, or last in the Chase, and got himself in enough trouble for NASCAR to park him for the Chase race at Texas and his sponsor to pull its logos off the car for the final two weeks of the season.

Logano never even contended. He finished 24th in the points, nearly lost his job to Carl Edwards and his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, might be looking to leave the #20 team.

So here comes Darian Grubb, the defending championship crew chief who spent several years working on the #48 team and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Johnson while regular crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended.

Grubb won’t bring the Hendrick Motorspots books with him to Gibbs, but he will bring in some outside knowledge that is bound to help an organization that struggled with bad-handling cars and engine issues for much of the season.

While Grubb is surely relieved to have found a crew chief job with a high-caliber race team, Gibbs should be more relieved to have found a person with Grubb’s knowledge and experience to help right the ship at JGR.

One person doesn’t usually come in a change an entire organization, but Grubb could be a huge step toward getting JGR back to where it was just a year ago. His hire could also be a big help to Toyota teams, in general, and they need help.

Toyota, which fielded nine full-time cars this season, finished third in the manufacturer’s standings and had just one more win than the five victories scored by the three full-time Dodge teams.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota had a lot of work to do this offseason to become competitive again on a regular basis, but signing Grubb will go a long way toward getting Toyota back to the front.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Kurt Busch done at Penske, might be done as a regular contender

While one Busch brother narrowly avoided losing his job late in the season, the other did lose his job after the season.

Kurt Busch won’t be back in the #22 car in 2012. He and Penske Racing said they agreed it would be best for somebody else to represent the Shell/Pennzoil brand in NASCAR.

Who that somebody else is remains to be seen, but the ramifications of this decision will likely be much worse for Busch than it will be for his former-owner Roger Penske.

Penske has an up-and-coming star in Brad Keselowski, who came out of nowhere to finish fifth in the points standings and threatened to become the face of Penske Racing in just his second year with the team. Plus, the #22 car will be a sought-after ride for many drivers.

Busch, on the other hand, might say he has several options for what to do next season, but there doesn’t appear to be many good options, at least in NASCAR’s top series.

Busch said in one of his many interviews to try and save face that NHRA might be an option. He did compete in the Gatornationals in March, but this is a former NASCAR champion we are talking about. Might he have burned so many bridges that he has to essentially switch sports?

This type of situation is nearly unfathomable. Sure, there have been plenty of prima-donnas in other professional sports such as baseball, basketball and football, but guys with talent usually stick around until they get old enough that they aren’t productive anymore. Examples: Rickey Henderson, Shaquille O’Neal and Terrell Owens.

Busch is still a productive driver. He has been in the Chase four of the last five years and won nine races during that span. If things fell his way, he could be a regular championship contender at Homestead. However, things haven’t fallen his way, but it isn’t because of luck. Busch has cost himself chances to contend for the championship.

No driver gets a perfect car every week, but most drivers are patient, take care of their equipment and try to make the most out of what they have during a given race. Take Carl Edwards, for example. Edwards had a chance to win this year’s championship because he didn’t get down on his team and drove through the rough patches during a race to come up with a good finish by the end.

Busch could be the same way. That #22 team had enough talent throughout the team, good enough equipment and enough funding to finish at or near the top of the standings. But, that didn’t happen because Busch chopped at his own success every time he exploded on the radio, participated in feuds with other drivers and popped off repeatedly to media members.

In the June race at Kansas, Busch told his team within the first 10 laps of the race the car was so loose he would drop all the way to the back of the pack. It turned out the car wasn’t as bad as he first thought, and he ended up with a ninth-place finish and led 152 laps. Part of that is because the crew worked on the car during the race, but Busch never fell farther back than 11th in the entire race.

The NASCAR pickings are pretty slim for Busch at this point. There really isn’t a fully sponsored ride available. Plus, drivers such as David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers are also looking for Cup rides, and each of them haven’t burned bridges with teams and sponsors, although it’s unlikely Vickers will be in a Ford anytime soon.

The sad part of this entire situation is how much talent is being wasted. Busch could’ve still competed to win not only races, but championships in the #22 car.

Those types of rides are precious, as Busch will quickly find out while he wallows with a second-tier team in 2012.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rating the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: 3.3 Stars

NASCAR journeys into the offseason this year with tons of momentum following one of the best championship runs in the history of the sport. The storylines from this season were as good as any, as were several of the races were. The 2011 Sprint Cup Series season gets a 3.3 Star Rating.

That rating is an average of the ratings from each race this season, excluding the two non-points events and the reader’s choice edition for the Watkins Glen race.

Here is the breakdown of ratings throughout the season:

5 Stars: 8 races

4 Stars: 5 races

3 Stars: 11 races

2 Stars: 10 races

1 Star: 1 race

The 2011 season had more 5 Star races than the past two year’s Monday Morning Crew Chief has rated races, but there were also many more 2 Star races. The good races were really good, while the not-so-great races were worse than normal.

Let’s take a look back at some of the memorable races from this season.

For the first time, the season opened as closed with the best rating possible: 5 Stars. The Daytona 500 started the year off with one of the most incredible races in the history of the sport. Just 20 years old, Trevor Bayne won the race in the Wood Brothers #21 Ford; the first time that organization had been to Victory Lane since 2001. This is a team that no longer shows up to every race, and often it looked like the sport had blown by the Wood Brothers as they struggled to simply remain in the sport. But then, a driver making just the second Cup start of his career, went out and won the first race of his NASCAR career. That wasn’t just his first Cup win; it was his first win in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

It’s hard to top one of the greatest Daytona 500 stories ever, but Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards did their best as they fought to the very end of the Ford 400 in the closest championship battle in NASCAR’s 63-year history. There will never be a closer points battle than this year. Stewart and Edwards tied, but Stewart won the title because he won the race, his fifth in the Chase, topping Edwards’ one win early in the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Stewart not only won the race and the championship, but he had to come back through the entire field twice and then held off his championship competitor at the end as the top-two drivers in the series this year finished first and second.

Other 5 Star races included Regan Smith’s win in the Southern 500, the Aaron's 499 at Talladega that tied for the closest finish in NASCAR history, as well as a pair of races at NASCAR’s biggest track, Talladega, and its smallest, Martinsville, to finish out October and set the stage for the championship fight.

While there were plenty of terrific races, the season average isn’t all that high because there were more sub-par races than normal. The high number of fuel-mileage races is partially to blame. Those races are often tense as drivers work to conserve fuel, but they usually don’t make for very close finishes and sometimes the winner didn’t have a challenger at the end of the race.

The 2 Star races included the first two Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire where Stewart won both on fuel-mileage. However, other below-average races came at places such as Dover, Kentucky and Pocono where fuel mileage didn’t come into play.

Those were races, including the two at New Hampshire, where drivers simply couldn’t make much headway on the track. The late summer stretch this year was particularly brutal in some follow-the-leader races. The car designs might be better than when the Car of Tomorrow came out in 2007, but it still needs work. The 2013 car models might help fix some of that, but NASCAR shouldn’t sit back and wait until that change, or next year will again be filled with many 2 Star races.

The lone 1 Star race of the season came in June with the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Speedway. A morning of rain, and a race filled with debris cautions, mechanical failures and a dominant performance by Jeff Gordon made for one of the longest racedays of the season. The races at Pocono might be only 400 miles next year, but that still wouldn’t have helped this race. It also began a nine-week stretch where only one race received a rating higher than 3 Stars, and that was the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

The 2011 season will be remembered as one of the best in many years. All in all, the last two years have been much better than the NEXTEL Cup era and the transition to the new car. This year’s championship run was amazing, but the 2010 battle among Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick was pretty exciting, as well.

Maybe 2012 will be even better. Now that Johnson doesn’t win everything all the time, we could be headed into a stretch where many drivers are regularly in contention for race wins.

Hopefully you enjoyed the ratings throughout the season. Monday Morning Crew Chief will stay active with offseason news and opinion pieces as NASCAR fans struggle through those long three months that make up an offseason that is shorter than other sports, but always feels longer.

Have a wonderful holiday season, everybody.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Now the other Busch might lose his ride

Just two weeks removed from watching his brother Kyle barely hold onto his job at Joe Gibbs Racing because of wreckless behavior, Kurt Busch put his own job in jeopardy.

Busch was caught ranting at Dr. Jerry Punch as he waited to start an ESPN interview after transmission problems sent him to the garage early in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.



Even after NASCAR levied a $50,000 fine and Busch, his owner Roger Penske and sponsor Shell/Pennzoil released their apology statements, rumors persist that Penske might release Busch in the next couple of weeks.

This isn’t the first time Busch has lost his mind and used disrespectful language to a reporter, or members of his own team, so why might this episode get him kicked out of the #22 car? It’s the same problem that plagued his Kyle Busch after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday under caution during the truck race at Texas Motor Speedway.

It’s the reputation he has built.

Kurt Busch has always had his moments where he gets upset and does something that draws a fine from NASCAR, or at least the ire of fans and people involved in the sport. Busch routinely cussed out his team over the radio during races this season and has even taken his owner to task during the middle of a race.

This particular deal at Homestead wasn’t that incredibly different than much of Busch’s behavior throughout the season, and that’s the problem.

Kyle Busch had delivered payback on drivers before, but NASCAR and his sponsors threw the book at him this time because he kept pushing the envelope too far. Well, Kurt Busch has done the same.

In 2005, Busch was suspended by his then-owner Jack Roush for the final two races of the season after he was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving. Since that point, Busch has had off-and-on controversies with other drivers, as has Kyle Busch.
Whether or not Penske fires Busch, who just completed his second year of a five-year contract, is yet to be seen, but don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that Busch will be gone.

Joe Gibbs worked incredibly hard to protect Kyle Busch throughout his ordeal after the Texas wreck and managed to keep him in the car even when his primary sponsor, M&M/Mars, pulled its stickers off the car for the final two weeks.
However, Penske isn’t Joe Gibbs, and that could hurt Busch in this situation.

Overall, it’s amazing that both of the Busch brothers continue to find themselves embroiled in a mess of their own making. At some point every driver either grows up and becomes a long-time figure in the sport, or he gets shuffled out.

NASCAR’s famous saying to drivers in the hauler after a controversial incident is, “You need us more than we need you.” While it might be tough to think of NASCAR without the Busch brothers after they have been grabbing headlines since Kurt Busch entered the Cup Series in 2000, the sport can go on without both of them.

Penske Racing can also go on without Busch. Brad Keselowski had a great season in the #2 car and finished fifth in the points standings, and there are three drivers who have won in the Cup series that don’t have a ride lined up for 2012: David Reutimann, David Ragan and Brian Vickers.

Plus, other young drivers such as Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are having a difficult time finding a consistent seat in the Cup series. Make no mistake, Penske could easily fill the #22 car with a qualified driver.

It’s a shame the Busch brothers can’t figure out how to handle themselves in a respectful manner. People have said ever since they entered the sport that they are incredibly talented, but they have to mature. Well, they haven’t matured, and Kurt just finished his 11th full season while Kyle completed his seventh. At this point, doubts start to arise that they may never mature.

In an era where sponsorships are difficult to find, the Busch brothers could become two of the biggest flameouts in the history of the sport.

Friday, November 25, 2011

NASCAR’s championship finish mirrors Major League Baseball playoffs

This must be the year of unbelievable comebacks.

Tony Stewart won the Chase after going winless in NASCAR’s regular season and barely slipped into the final Chase spot based on points before going crazy and winning one of the most exciting championship races ever.

However, Stewart wasn't the only comback champion this fall. He followed the template set by the St. Louis Cardinals when they won the other fall championship on the sports calendar.

The similarities in how the two seasons finished are remarkable. The Cardinals were more than 10 games out of a playoff spot with a month to play, and Stewart said his team didn’t even deserve a spot in the Chase a month before Chase started.

Stewart sat 10th in the points standings just 14 points ahead of 11th when he made that statement after the race in August at Michigan. In fact, Stewart said that Aug. 27, the same day the Cardinals began their climb back into contention.

Both Stewart and the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs and had to wait until the final day of their respective regular seasons to find out if they would make the playoffs.

They both did and then went on a tear unlike any other their sports had seen from teams so far out of contention with a month to play.

Stewart won five Chase races and the Cardinals beat the teams with the two best records in the National League: the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers.
The comparisons don’t stop there, however. Stewart and the Cardinals both made the championship game, but neither were content to make those contests any less than thrilling.

Stewart entered the final Sprint Cup Series race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing points leader Carl Edwards by three points. The only way Stewart could guarantee himself the championship was if he won the race.

He did win the race, but he had to battle back from adversity throughout the event, and for much of the race it looked like Edwards had the championship in hand as he dominated the first half of the race.

Instead, Stewart took the lead late and Edwards finished second, resulting in a tie for the points lead. Stewart won the championship because he had more wins than Edwards, and Stewart would have lost the championship even if he finished second. There was no margin for error.

The Cardinals also had no margin for error as they entered Game 6 of the World Series facing elimination by the Texas Rangers. The Rangers had the Cardinals down to their final strike twice, but the Cardinals came back both times to win the game on a walk-off homerun by David Freese and win the series the following night.

In both cases, the contest came absolutely down to the wire. It isn’t possible to have a NASCAR points race closer than the tie between Stewart and Edwards, and a baseball team can’t be any closer to being eliminated than the one remaining strike the Cardinals had left.

One would think maybe these types of finishes happen fairly regularly, but NASCAR hadn’t had a championship finish where the top two drivers were separated by less than 10 points since 2004, although the points system changed for this season. Major League Baseball hadn’t had a World Series go to Game 7 since 2002 when the Anaheim Angels beat the San Francisco Giants.

On top of everything else, both championship head coaches won’t return the following year. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa already announced his retirement three days after the World Series ended, and Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb confirmed he won’t be atop the #14 team’s pit box in 2012.

This was just one of those amazing years where the championship moment is as thrilling as possible, but it is incredible that those moments in both sports happened in the same year.

Maybe that means we’re in line for a terrific Super Bowl this season, as well.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rating the Ford 400: 5 Stars *****

The greatest championship battle in the Chase era concluded in one of the most dramatic finishes possible. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards put on a show worthy of a 5 Star Rating to close out the 2011 season.

For years and years, everybody involved in NASCAR has dreamed of a race to the championship similar to what happened Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It happened once in 1992 when Alan Kulwicki barely beat Bill Elliot for the championship, and it happened again 19 years later as Stewart won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Ironically, Kulwicki was also the last owner-driver to win the championship. Sure, Stewart might have a little more help than Kulwicki did, but this is still something that doesn’t come around very often.

Neither do races such as Sunday’s Ford 400. Edwards had a three point lead coming into the race, started on the pole, led the most laps and finished second. That sounds like an incredibly good weekend. Too bad Stewart, the only driver who could take the championship away, was the guy who finished first.

This race had everything, both good and bad. The championship was close, both drivers had great cars and ran extremely hard all day, it rained, several cars had engine problems and the title finally came down to, as everyone loves to say, “the final corner of the last lap at Homestead.”

NASCAR has tried for years to create a system that provides a final race full of tension, and that is surely what it got at Homestead. The Daytona 500 is usually one of the very few races throughout a season where fans have to consciously remember to breathe because the race is both exciting and important. Well, Sunday’s race had that same tension.

Both of the championship contenders also faced tension throughout the race. Edwards had to watch three Ford engines fail, knowing his could be next, and Stewart faced adversity all day starting with gaping hole in the grill after the first run of the race.

Stewart passed a mind-blowing total of 76 cars throughout the race. The #14 took several blows throughout the day, but Stewart managed to drive his way back to the front every single time. Plus, he did it in exciting fashion. At one point after a restart Edwards was on the high side and Stewart dove low to make it four-wide on the frontstretch. That is exciting racing even if the championship isn’t hanging in the balance.

There will always be debate about whether the car or driver matters more. But, with all due respect to both teams that prepared great cars throughout the Chase, it felt like Stewart and Edwards could’ve raced their cars to the front even if they didn’t contain an engine. Both drivers raced as hard Sunday as we will see any two drivers ever race.

To bring a fitting end to a terrific battle, Stewart and Edwards actually tied in the points standings, but Stewart won because he had five wins to Edwards’ one.

Most of the time fans want to see several drivers in contention to win a race, but having this one come down to just Stewart and Edwards was the best possible scenario. The rest of the field seemed to disappear for the final 37 laps, and that made a perfect setting to decide the championship.

So, now we head into the offseason. That is always a bittersweet sentence, but at least this year fans and people inside the sport can hang on to the excitement of the final race of the season.

This was a wonderful ending.

Thanks to all of the Monday Morning Crew Chief readers this season. Hopefully you have enjoyed the journey that is a NASCAR season. Check back for more end-of-season stories in coming days, and the rating for the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season is scheduled to appear Dec. 2 following the championship banquet.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Great championship battle reaches climax

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have battled as close as any two drivers can battle during the Chase, and that could make Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway a memorable one.



Sure, the final race of the year is always a big one. The champion is crowned, several drivers are in their last race with their current teams and it is the last time we’ll see racing again until February.

But often people tend to forget the final race of the season at least as quickly as other races, if not more so.

The fun of the offseason kicks in quickly as the final drivers find their ride for the next year and any other news that tends to drop out of the NASCAR sky. For example, Hendrick Motorsports switched three of its crew chiefs just two days after Jimmie Johnson won his fifth title in a row.

However, this year’s final race could be one that is remembered right along with the 1992 race at Atlanta where Alan Kulwicki won the championship and the 2004 race at Homestead where Kurt Busch survived a tire falling off to still win the closest Chase battle ever.

Good races with intriguing storylines, no matter where they fall on the schedule, have a longer life in a race fan’s mind than another bland championship coronation in the Nationwide Series this year and the not-so-close finishes in five of the first seven years of the Chase.

Yes, other drivers have been mathematically in contention at Homestead, but Stewart had a 52-point lead heading into the last race of his 2005 championship season, and Johnson had a lead of at least 63 points in his first four championship seasons.

Even last year’s race felt like a formality before Johnson raised the trophy after Denny Hamlin wrecked early in the race and effectively ended any chance he had of maintaining the 15-point lead he had entering the race.

But not this year. Edwards and Stewart have both been the two best drivers the last two weeks, and they have been able to put on a show where for once it is OK to forget about the rest of the field. The way these two guys are running, it would probably be an entertaining race if they were the only two cars on the track.



Hopefully the championship contenders qualify close to each other and run up at the front of the field for the balance of the race. This has the chance to be one of the most intense battles the sport has seen in years.

But, that doesn’t mean there will be fender-rubbing and fights after the race. Fans would probably get a kick out of that type of situation, but this race will more likely be a clean, close race that will keep fans chewing on their fingernails until the final laps.

These are two aggressive drivers, and they have as much incentive as any to give everything they have to win Sunday’s race. That’s not to say they haven’t been giving their all. Their battle two-thirds of the way through the race at Phoenix was fantastic.

If they race like that again this week, maybe everyone will remember the final race of the season.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Johnson officially eliminated, but recent performances should be his main concern

It’s done. It’s over. For the first time in the history of Monday Morning Crew Chief, Jimmie Johnson will not be the Sprint Cup Series champion.



Johnson currently sits fifth in the points standings, 68 points out of the lead and mathematically eliminated from a chance at the championship.

Johnson’s run of championships was bound to end at some point, but it still feels weird not to at least have him in contention at Homestead. He at least had a mathematical shot to win the two Chases before his run of five championships began in 2006. That means he could be a seven-time champion if things had gone right at Homestead in 2004 and 2005.

Wow. Johnson has been simply amazing since he entered the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2002. He has always finished with at least three wins and has finished no worse than fifth in the points standings. Both of those streaks are also in jeopardy heading into Homestead.

Many people have already started to reminisce about how great it was that Johnson made history with five straight titles. What happened to all of the hatred directed at that team when it won all of the time? This happens with every really successful driver at some point. Once he stops winning, all of a sudden people want to relive the past and see him win again. We’re never satisfied.

In any case, Johnson’s performance in this year’s Chase has been surprisingly sub-par. Sure, fuel mileage got him at Chicago and wrecks hurt his finishes at New Hampshire and Charlotte, but the #48 car has run in the middle of the pack after Johnson came to within shouting distance of the lead after a second-place finish at Martinsville.

Since then Johnson has finished 14th at Texas and Phoenix. Usually, Johnson sees an opportunity and smashes the rest of the field and grab tight to the points lead he goes through a stretch of races such as the one at Kansas. He won that race in dominating fashion, leading 197 of the 272 laps.

Instead, Johnson has been mediocre for the balance of the Chase. The race at Phoenix is particularly troubling. Hendrick Motorsports is typically very good at adjusting to changes in the sport, and Johnson has been dominant at Phoenix in the past, but he ran much of the race in the mid-20s and never made a charge toward the front. Even when he took two tires and jumped up to ninth after a caution, he eventually fell back into the 20s.

But, Johnson still sits fifth in the points standings heading into the final race of the season. There are a lot of drivers would dream of a season where they could finish fifth in the points. The problem is Johnson expects to be better than fifth in the points.

Regardless, it feels like Johnson is doing terribly right now because he has become a mid-pack car in the last two races. The concern should be on his performance during the race rather than his finishes. It won’t truly matter where Johnson is in the points again for another 52 weeks, but how he performs in many of the races during that span does matter.

The #48 team might find this to be its most difficult offseason yet because for one of the few times in Johnson’s career his car didn’t drive well enough to even compete near the front of the field.

No matter what the final stats say, that #48 car has to start running better throughout a race before that team can even think about competing for another championship.

Monday, November 14, 2011

NASCAR re-blurs line for aggressive-driving penalties

Just one week after NASCAR figuratively drew a line in the sand when it punished Kyle Busch, it quickly went back and erased that line when it let Brian Vickers walk free after Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway.

Vickers pushed Matt Kenseth into the Turn 3 wall on lap 178, taking Kenseth out of the race after he took Kenseth out of the championship battle two weeks prior at Martinsville.

Regardless of previous incidents between these two drivers, Kenseth won the pole, had one of the five best cars in the field Sunday and had a very good chance to win the race.



But, Vickers made sure that didn’t happen, just as Busch ended both Ron Hornaday’s race at Texas and his chance at a championship when he ran Hornaday into the wall under caution during the truck race.

NASCAR brought the hammer down as hard as it ever has on Busch after his incident, but it did absolutely nothing to Vickers at Phoenix. It didn’t even park Vickers for a lap or two.

There is certainly precedent for penalties in that type of situation. Even Carl Edwards had to sit out the rest of the spring race at Atlanta in 2010 after he flipped Brad Keselowski, although Edwards didn’t receive any further penalties beyond probation.

What’s different in this situation? Well, the wreck happened under green-flag conditions. Busch did his damage after the caution came out, but the Edwards’ Keselowski wreck happened under green.

NASCAR has done a better job in recent years of staying out of driver feuds, but it may have missed one here. The wreck sure looked intentional even though Vickers denies it.



Maybe NASCAR shouldn't drop major penalties on Vickers as it did in Busch’s situation but this is twice in the last three weeks, and at least three times this season, counting the race at Sonoma when Vickers put Tony Stewart up on the tire barriers in Turn 11.

Plus, Vickers has raced with this type of aggressiveness for much of his career. Most people remember Vickers first win at Talladega in 2006 when he wrecked Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap, but he also spun Mike Bliss coming to the finish line in the Sprint All-Star Challenge in 2005 to grab that win even though it doesn’t count in the record book.

While Busch might get a lot more publicity about his aggressive driving-style and ill-timed payback, Vickers has had his fair share of overly aggressive moments.

The drivers previous records aren’t that different, and all of the Edwards-Keselowski incidents have happened under green-flag conditions, so where exactly is that “know it when we see it” line that triggers penalties?

NASCAR has done well to put more of the police work in the drivers’ hands, but there has to be some consistency. The sanctioning body is dishing out these penalties like a bad home-plate umpire. An umpire might have an odd strike zone, but as long as it is consistent batters generally keep quiet.

Well, NASCAR has dealt with these three particular situations in three completely different ways. NASCAR has always ruled as a mostly benevolent dictator over the sport where everyone has to play by the rules as NASCAR decides them, but it would do the sport well if NASCAR would rule with more consistency.

That would not only help the credibility of the sport, but it would also prevent backlash from fans and others in the sport when these situations happen.

But, backlash means people are at least talking about the sport. We just spent an entire story devoted to the controversy these rulings create.

Maybe any news really is good news.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rating the Kobalt Tools 500: 3 Stars ***

Kasey Kahne jumped in and stole the end of the duel in the desert Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. The race gets a 3 Star Rating overall, but my gosh Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are putting on a show for the championship.

Edwards and Stewart were certainly the highlight of a race where only four or five guys had a legitimate chance to win, and Kahne was the last one to the party.

Kahne didn’t show up at the front until the second half of the race, but he found himself in front of Edwards by a wide margin after his final pit stop.

Any win is a big win, but Kahne had just two races left to get a win for his Red Bull Racing team, which will fold at the end of the season along with his teammate Brian Vickers’ #83 team.

Kahne said it was fun to win on a new track, as well as break his 81-race losing streak.

“We’ve been right there every weekend, so it feels really good to finally knock one off,” he said. “I’m really excited; it’s been a while. It feels like my first win again it’s been so long.”

Edwards said Kahne’s aggressive driving-style and relationship with crew chief Kenny Francis has helped him succeed in the variety of situations he has dealt with as far as which team he is running for and questions about their stability.

“Those guys are going to be tough for a long time if they can find a groove and if they can stick with one team and have people rally around them,” Edwards said.

Phoenix was the drought-busting track this year. Jeff Gordon also ended a 76-race streak with his win in February.



Besides Edwards and Stewart, A.J. Allmendinger and Matt Kenseth contended early in the race but both fought adversity. Allmendinger had bad pit stops throughout the day and was able to recover to sixth, but Brian Vickers made sure Kenseth’s day ended early when he ran Kenseth straight up into the Turn 3 wall.

That incident will surely bring about comparisons to the Kyle Busch – Ron Hornaday incident a week earlier at Texas, but that is a topic for another day.

The race played out generally as expected despite all of the concerns about the quality of the racing leading up to this weekend. A Bodine brother and Robby Gordon are still wrecking, and it is still incredibly difficult to pass the leader.

Kenseth led the first 36 laps until Stewart made an incredibly gutsy move on the outside to take the lead as he and Kenseth split Geoff Bodine on the frontstretch.

Stewart then put a hurting on the field for the majority of the race. Both Edwards and Kenseth could get close to taking the lead, but neither could get ultimately get around Stewart.

Edwards and Stewart also had a great battle about two-thirds of the way through the race, but Edwards could not get around the #14 car until a late pit stop relegated Stewart to fourth.

The one concern about the quality of racing leading up to the race that came true was the inability to make a pass for the lead. That might be more of a problem with the cars than the track, however. Even though it usually took several laps for a driver to complete a pass farther back in the pack, it was possible.

Overall, the racing groove was plenty wide for hard racing, especially in the first race on a new surface. Stewart actually took the lead after starting in the high lane on several restarts.

As for the larger picture, Edwards and Stewart both had good runs and are still locked in a fantastic championship battle heading into the final race at Homestead. Edwards still leads Stewart by three points. Basically, the driver who finishes better in next week’s race will be the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

This is going to be a fun one.



For more photos from the weekend, check out the Monday Morning Crew Chief Facebook page.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Drivers’ weigh in on new Phoenix track



The Nationwide Series had the honor Saturday of running the first race on the newly repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway. Overall, the race was not that different than previous races at the track.

Phoenix has always been a track where the bottom lane is the way to go. It generally races similar to a short track but also has a little more room for error than other flat or short tracks.

That margin for error might be a little smaller now with the new pavement, but at least the Nationwide race was pretty similar to previous Phoenix races.

What does that mean for the Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday? Probably more of the same.

Even though there were seven cautions in the Nationwide race, other races at flat tracks such as Richmond and Martinsville had a lot more wrecks than what could reasonably be expected on Sunday.

Carl Edwards said he was nervous about the condition of the track before he got in his car for practice Friday, but he found it to be more forgiving than what he had experienced during the open test session Oct. 4-5.

However, Edwards also said the new surface and configuration leaves little comparison to previous races at Phoenix.

“From the driver’s seat, it feels like a brand new racetrack,” Edwards said.



He also said the new surface will make it difficult to predict who will run well and who will run poorly.

“This is so different. The pavement drives differently, the layout is a little different, the setups are different,” Edwards said. “It’s going to be its own race and that’s why I was a little nervous to come here because you just don’t know how you’re going to stack up.”

Denny Hamlin said he thinks Sunday’s race to be better than many people feared heading into the weekend.

He said the drivers were able to extend the racing groove by about 3 feet Friday, which almost makes a groove wide enough for two cars to race side-by-side. The on-track action Saturday that includes 325 miles of racing for the Nationwide Series and K&N Pro Series West should extend the groove far enough to where it will be plenty wide for the Sprint Cup Series race, Hamlin said.

“We’re going to have a good race, better than what people are expecting,” Hamlin said.

Edwards, on the other hand, still believes it will be difficult to pass on the track, putting a larger premium on strategy and pit stops.

Edwards’ concern about passing showed up in the Nationwide race, which had just two lead changes among three drivers. Once the leader broke free ahead of the field, nobody could catch him, including first-time winner Sam Hornish Jr.



So, the quality of the Cup race is still up to speculation for another evening, and the potential for rain overnight could further complicate the situation. But, the on-track action so far this weekend has shown that at least this race won’t artificially mess with the championship picture.





For more photos from the racetrack, check out the Monday Morning Crew Chief Facebook page.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kyle Busch thought he might lose his ride

Plenty of people speculated that Kyle Busch might end up losing his ride after his incident in the truck race last week at Texas, and it turns out the driver thought the same thing.

“Was there a point in which I thought, ‘Do I have a ride?’ Of course there was,” Busch said. “Yeah, I thought that.”

However, Busch said Gibbs never suggested to him that Busch might be fired even though his sponsor, M&M’s/Mars, chose to pull its sponsorship in the final two weeks of the season. Interstate Batteries will grace the hood of the #18 at Phoenix and Homestead.



Busch also said he wasn’t surprised by the penalties NASCAR threw at him in the wake of the incident where he intentionally drover truck series championship contender Ron Hornaday into the wall under caution.

For Busch to not be surprised by NASCAR’s ruling, that means the leadership at Gibbs must have gotten to him quickly after the incident because Busch certainly didn’t sound remorseful in his TV interview right after the wreck.

“If I just lay over and give up everything for Ron Hornaday that is not Kyle Busch's fashion.” Busch said. “I’m sorry it was Ron Hornaday and he is going after a championship, but you can’t blame this all on one person.”

Well, NASCAR did blame it on one person, and Busch quickly joined the rest of the world in understanding what he did was wrong.

Busch said there has always been a gray area within NASCAR rules that everybody tries to push both in how the cars are built and the extent of drivers’ actions on the track.

“With the crew chiefs, with car chiefs, with our body hangers back at the shop trying to figure out how far we can go, you go that far and you push the envelope,” he said. “Sometimes you get slapped, or maybe a little bit worse than that, and I think we saw that this past weekend.”

Jimmie Johnson said drivers have a feeling of what to expect when they are involved in an altercation and they generally try to steer clear of the other driver until he gets to pit road or the garage area, although Brian Vickers still drove by Jamie McMurray at Martinsville when McMurray was sitting on the track waiting to run into him.

Jeff Gordon was in a similar incident with Jeff Burton in last year’s fall race at Texas that led to a fight between the two on the backstretch but weren’t penalized. He said he disagrees with the idea that NASCAR doesn’t have a clear line established for on-track incidents.

“You just saw it. That was the clear line,” he said. “When you know that you didn’t do the right thing, then you know there are consequences.”

One of those consequences is the danger of losing a sponsor.

Gordon said crew chiefs and drivers are expendable to some extent, but sponsors are absolutely not because they have the money that keeps the sport rolling. He said he thinks Busch will lose his sponsor if a similar situation happens again.

Finally, Gordon said he believes this might finally be the incident that wakes Busch up to where he will make some real changes in his decision-making.

“If this doesn’t teach him the ultimate lesson, than nothing will,” Gordon said. “I would certainly have to believe that this would be an eye-opening experience.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Phoenix might not be much of a wild card race

Phoenix International Raceway ripped apart its pavement after Jeff Gordon won the second race of the Sprint Cup season in February, and now the track has a brand new surface and configuration.

That has led many people to say this race will replace Talladega as the wild card in this year’s Chase. Those claims might prove to be correct; the drivers sure had concerns about the quality of racing the track will produce this weekend because they had trouble working in a second groove.

However, all of those concerns were about how exciting the race would be, not which cars would run well and which would struggle. This race has been billed as a race where it will be a free-for-all to the front of the field and some random driver could take charge of the race.

That is extremely unlikely to happen. Talladega and Daytona are wild cards, and people had similar feelings when the Car of Tomorrow was first introduced in 2007. Many people thought the new car design would even the playing field and also-rans would become weekly contenders. Well, that didn’t happen.

Kyle Busch won the Car of Tomorrow’s first race at Briston in March 2007, and Hendrick Motorsports went on to dominate the rest of the season and Jimmie Johnson picked up his third consecutive championship.

So, while it might take a little longer for teams to dial in their cars throughout the weekend because they have little to no notes on the new track, this likely won’t be a race where unexpected drivers run up front.

The usual suspects will probably run well, especially those drivers that typically run well on flat, one-mile or less race tracks.

The championship contenders Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards will also probably be near the front because they have to. Teams in the championship hunt have to raise their performance as the season winds down toward Homestead, and they usually do. Last year Johnson and Kevin Harvick finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the fall race at Phoenix, and Denny Hamlin finished 12th but was in contention to win the race had fuel mileage not set him back.

Overall, this race might not be as much of a surprise and people might think. The good teams will still be good, and all of the drivers will figure out how to race on the new configuration pretty quickly.

As far as the quality of racing is concerned, it’s not like we haven’t had several races this year that have been single-file all day long and nobody can pass. Tracks such as New Hampshire weren’t recently repaved and the two races there were as stale as it gets.

People like to think there has to be at least two grooves of racing to make it exciting, but look at what happened at Bristol Motor Speedway, for example. The one-groove racing was some of the most exciting in the sport. Once the track added a second groove the excitement level noticeably dropped.

Maybe, just maybe, the winner of Sunday’s race will have to use a little bump-and-run move to get to Victory Lane. That would be exciting, wouldn’t it?

The possibility certainly exists for this race to be a wild card where different drivers take control of the race because they magically hit on the right setup and the field parades around the track single-file 312 times. But, it is also quite possible the race will be similar to plenty of other previous races in the Sprint Cup Series this season.

Make sure to check out the Monday Morning Crew Chief Facebook page as the crew chief will be live from Phoenix International Raceway throughout the weekend.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jimmie Johnson’s worst Cup season could start new era in NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson’s five-year championship run will likely end this year, and compared to the lofty standards Johnson has set, it will come crashing to an end.

Johnson visited Victory Lane just twice this season. While many drivers would love to have two wins in a season, two wins is a disappointment for the #48 team that has won at least three races and finished no lower than fifth in the standings during Johnson’s nine full seasons.

Wins aren’t everything in NASCAR. Just ask potential champion Carl Edwards, who could win the championship with one win on the season and none in the Chase. But, Johnson and the #48 team have not performed at the same level this year as they have for nearly the past decade and currently sit sixth in the points standings. The only race Johnson dominated this year was his win at Kansas Speedway in October.

For the last nine years, Johnson has been what Jeff Gordon was to the sport during the mid to late 90s. He won a lot, but he also tended to stink up the show in the races he won.

Johnson has also struggled compared to his career norm in categories other than wins. He has 14 top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes, which are both close to career lows. He also hasn’t sat on the pole once this season, another feat he has accomplished at least once in every season of his career.

Instead of a bunch of wins, Johnson has finished second or third eight times this year.

In the past, Johnson has been able to turn second- and third-place finishes into victories. Several of his wins would come on weekends where he qualified either on the pole or in the top five, and he would generally be on top of the speed charts in all of the practice sessions leading up to the race.

Those were the weekends where it felt like the race was just a formality to make his Victory Lane celebration official.

Now the championship streak is all but over, and it is amazing how fast the car that might as well have been painted in gold the last five years can start to look flawed. The #48 team’s pit stops have been inconsistent at best for much of the year, the setups have not been spot on and Johnson has been involved in several incidents late in the season that he usually gets out of the way before the Chase rolls around.

Johnson will be a championship contender for years to come, but we may have seen the end of his dominant days. Gordon looked unbeatable for nearly a decade, as well, but he since has struggled to be a consistent championship threat.

There doesn’t appear to be a steady, young driver that is ready to take Johnson’s place as the next dominant driver in the sport, so maybe the next few years will have one of the things the Chase was designed to accomplish in the first place: a little bit of parity.

NASCAR had a different champion in six of the seven years immediately before it implemented the Chase format. It can happen in NASCAR; it’s just been so long ago that many people have forgotten what life was like before Johnson’s championships.

It will look a little weird Nov. 20 to have somebody not in a Lowe’s firesuit raise the Sprint Cup Series trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but there’s a chance that could be the new normal.

Monday, November 7, 2011

NASCAR finishes the Kyle Busch situation

Believe it or not, life could be worse for Kyle Busch.

Sure, NASCAR smacked him with a $50,000 fine and put him on serious probation for the rest of the year, but Busch will race this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

For that, he should be plenty thankful. Plenty of people would have him banned from all racing facilities for the final two weeks of the season.

The NASCAR leaders were obviously very upset with Busch’s actions Friday night in the truck race at Texas when he intentionally wrecked championship contender Ron Hornaday.

In the “Boys, have at it” era, it takes a lot to get NASCAR angry, but Busch certainly provoked the big dog enough so that it came and took a big bite out of him.

NASCAR has lots of different penalties in its toolbox, and it is pretty judicious in choosing the right penalty for the job, but Busch got the sledgehammer Saturday morning when NASCAR President Mike Helton announced Busch would be forced to stay out of his cars for the rest of the weekend.

But, the NASCAR brass kept the door open that additional penalties might be on the way for Busch.

All things considered, Busch made out about as well as possible with a fine and probation.

Many people thought NASCAR might park Busch for the final two races of the season. While parking a driver for the remainder of a race weekend after an incident in an earlier race isn’t unprecedented, a full-blown suspension for multiple races because of aggressive driving is, and NASCAR certainly already made its point.

Yes, what Busch did Friday night was obviously wrong, but the core emotions behind his actions were no different than what many drivers have felt throughout NASCAR history. Unfortunately for Busch, he made a really stupid decision at a very bad time.

Now, this doesn’t mean Busch is in the clear. His primary sponsor, M&M’s/Mars was upset with the situation, and has expressed those concerns to Joe Gibbs Racing. Why does that matter? Sponsors have the money, and therefore have power.

If M&M’s believe Busch has gone too far and no longer represents its brand in a positive manner, Joe Gibbs Racing might be faced with an extremely difficult decision. Keep Busch or keep the sponsor?

Also, don’t forget about the probation side to this penalty. Probation is often overlooked as just words that have little meaning behind them, but not this time. NASCAR made sure everyone understood that it means business with this one.

“If, during the remaining NASCAR events in 2011 there is another action by the competitor that is deemed by NASCAR officials as detrimental to stock car racing or to NASCAR, or is disruptive to the orderly conduct of an event, the competitor will be suspended indefinitely from NASCAR,” according to the statement accompaning the penalty.

Make no mistake, that competitor is Kyle Busch.

NASCAR doesn’t usually add a clarification to its probation penalty, but this time we all know what Busch won’t be doing if he is involved in another ruckus. He certainly won’t be racing.

Hopefully the situation is over with this ruling. Busch likely will be very careful in the next two weeks to mind his manners and try to win back some much-needed respect in the garage area. That might be his biggest penalty.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Rating the AAA Texas 500: 3 Stars ***

If it wasn’t a two driver race for the Sprint Cup Series championship coming into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, it certainly was leaving the track. The eighth race in the Chase gets a 3 Star Rating, but it defintely helped stoke the coals for a great championship battle.

Tony Stewart has been simply amazing since the Chase began. He is now just three points behind points leader Carl Edwards and picked up his fourth win of the season Sunday at Texas. Oh wait, that’s his fourth win of the Chase, as well.

My, what a difference a couple of months can make. Stewart said he and his team didn’t even deserve to be in the Chase after a ninth-place finish in August at Michigan, and he was one of the final drivers to hold on to a Chase spot based on points, considering he had no wins at the time.

Now he is the leading challenger in the fight for the championship. Edwards may lead the points standings and have finished second Sunday, but Stewart has all of the momentum right now. Stewart is on a Jimmie Johnson-type run in this Chase, and we’ve seen how that has worked out the past five years.

Speaking of Johnson, we can now put a fork in his bid for a sixth-straight championship. He currently sits 55 points out of the lead in sixth with just two races to go. And with the way he ran Sunday, that #48 car is not running well enough to win a championship even if he was in contention.

With the new points system this year, it has taken a full eight races to separate the Chase drivers to put the championship battle in a manageable perspective. The standings are more fluid under the new system, and a driver almost has to prove they can’t run up front for several weeks before people feel comfortable ruling them out of the Chase.

Now the stage is set. It will be Edwards vs. Stewart in what looks to be a thrilling run to the finish. Yes, there are three points separating the two drivers, but they might as well be tied. Whoever finishes better in these next two races, even if it by just one position, will in all likelihood win the championship.

It will be tough for fans to come up with something to complain about as far as the championship picture is concerned this year. For those tired of Johnson, he won’t be a factor in the final two races. It was actually kind of shocking how little attention he received throughout Sunday’s race. Kyle Busch almost got more air time and he wasn’t even in the race. Maybe we’re just used to it all being about the #48 team during this time of the year.

Stewart and Edwards have also not raced conservatively lately, and Stewart has put his foot to the floor since the Chase started. He has taken chances, and for the most part they have all worked out.

That should make these next two weeks plenty exciting, especially with the unknowns about the track at Phoenix heading into next week. Hopefully the track is racy so these two championship contenders can go at it without any outside factors coming into play.

Enjoy the finish to the season, folks. It’s going to be a good one.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Reaction to Kyle Busch's penalty

NASCAR finally did it.

After nearly two years since NASCAR delivered the “Boys, have at it” edict, one of the boys has pushed the envelope too far.

Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday got into a dust-up early in the truck race Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway. Hornaday got loose and squeezed Busch into the outside wall, but then Busch came back during the caution period and intentionally wrecked Hornaday and ending the night of both cars just 14 laps into the race.

NASCAR went ahead and told Busch he couldn’t go back out on the track for the remainder of the race, but it didn’t matter. The #18 truck was destroyed.

However, NASCAR came back Saturday morning and took a much more drastic step in the situation. They told Busch he could not race in either the Nationwide race on Saturday or the Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday.

Let’s try and sort out some of the issues involved in this situation, because there are plenty.

First, Busch intentionally wrecked a fellow driver. OK, that has happened before, and it has even happened under caution. Remember last year’s Chase race at Texas? Jeff Burton dumped Jeff Gordon under the yellow and the two drivers literally fought about it on the backstretch.

Another recent incident many people look back to for perspective on this situation is when Carl Edwards intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski in the 2010 spring race at Atlanta.

Yet another factor that could be weighed into this decision is that Hornaday was in the thick of the truck series championship battle with just one race remaining after Texas. However, drivers in a championship battle have been wrecked before, even intentionally. Shoot, Brian Vickers took out Matt Kenseth on purpose just last week at Martinsville.

What’s the difference? The driver’s history.

Kyle Busch is the bad boy of NASCAR and has been since he joined the sport in 2004. Every year Busch either says something or does something that stirs everybody up and we have debates like the one this weekend.

So, was NASCAR right to park Busch for the rest of the weekend? That answer will be debated long after Sunday’s race and maybe even long after the season comes to a close.

Many people will say Edwards deserved a suspension after not only wrecking Keselowski at Atlanta, but then wrecking him coming to the white flag later in the year during a Nationwide race at Gateway.

After all of that, NASCAR still had to penalize Busch this weekend. Unfortunately life isn't fair, pal.

Contrary to public opinion, the sanctioning body has probably been a little soft in its punishments throughout the years. This was only the third time a driver has been parked during a weekend since 2002.

But, before we give NASCAR a hard time, and plenty of people still will regardless of its decision, the great part about this sport is how the competitors are able to police the sport among themselves.

The most telling sign that NASCAR made the right decision is the drivers and former drivers’ comments that Busch certainly deserved this penalty. Some, including Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett, think he might deserve a harsher penalty that spills into the coming weeks.

Should other drivers have received similar penalties in the past? Maybe, but past possible errors shouldn’t change what the correct answer is in this particular instance.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Edwards’ consistency, not wins, might win the championship

Carl Edwards leads the Chase by eight points over Tony Stewart and looks to be the favorite to win the championship with three races left, but he could do the unthinkable and win the title without a win in the Chase.

The #99 team has been the most consistent team throughout the entire season, and so far in the Chase. Sure, he may have run in the back much of the last two races, but they only award points for finishing position. Races such as the one Edwards had at Martinsville have always been the type of races that make a champion.

There is no better example of this than the team that has repeated near-perfection year after year to win the championship: the #48 team. It is big news when Jimmie Johnson doesn’t finish in the top 10, as opposed to when he has a good run. He gets more coverage after a bad race than a top-five finish simply because it happens so rarely.

The #48 team has been the best at turning a bad day into at least a decent day, and those consistent finishes have led to five consecutive championships.

The #99 team has been the best at salvaging bad days this year, and not-surprisingly Edwards currently sits in the lead.

Even after NASCAR has tried for years to change the rules to make the sport more about winning, Edwards could very well win this year’s championship with just as many wins as the guy who caused NASCAR to implement the Chase in the first place.

Matt Kenseth won just one race in his 2003 championship season, and NASCAR followed with a new playoff format the following year.

Now, after many tweaks to that system and an overhaul of how points are awarded this year, Edwards might do exactly what NASCAR wanted to prevent.

Edwards might win just one race on the season, and to make things worse, he could go winless in the Chase and still win the title. Does that mean we’ll get another new system next year?

That’s doubtful, but no matter how much NASCAR tries to change the meaning of the sport and make the championship more about winning, consistency still wins championships.

Johnson won the most races in only two of his five championship seasons. If NASCAR wanted wins to determine championships, it should’ve quit putting a costume on the points system and based the championship strictly on wins.

However, the problem with that is most years the end of the season would actually be less exciting, and often the champion would have the title wrapped up at least one race in advance. That would really bring things full circle as drivers clinching the championship before the final race was another issue the Chase was supposed to address.

Whoever wins this year’s championship won’t have it wrapped up before the final race at Homestead, but they might not have to win any of the final three races to win the championship.

That’s fine. The best team this year will still have the Sprint Cup Series trophy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rating the TUMS Fast Relief 500: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series visited the shortest track on the schedule at Martinsville Speedway, but it had just as much action as the previous week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, the longest in NASCAR. The race at Martinsville continued to jumble the Chase standings and receives a 5 Star Rating.

This race took components from several of the other 5 Star races this season. It began with hard driving from the drop of the green flag that resulted in several early wrecks, similar to the September race at Richmond, and around lap 100 the top five included drivers such as A.J. Allmendinger and Casey Mears. Those type of names don’t usually show up that high on the scoring pylon unless it’s at Talladega or Daytona.

And Brian Vickers wrecked.

After the initial scramble, the race settled down and big-name drivers such as Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin led for long stretches.

Until Brian Vickers wrecked.

Finally, after a day that included a season-high 18 cautions, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart found themselves at the front of the field and had a good battle to the finish line where Stewart notched his third win of the Chase.

After Brian Vickers wrecked.

Overall, Sunday’s race at Martinsville had more of the type of racing the sport had lacked through much of the Chase. Early on non-Chasers were in the mix and nobody held back and rode around. Nearly every car in the field had fairly significant damage not only at the end of the race, but most of them had torn up cars before the halfway mark.

Especially Brian Vickers, who barely had a car left after he was involved in five of the 18 cautions.

The points standings also took another crazy turn after the messes at Martinsville grabbed many of the title contenders. Matt Kenseth looked to be in great position to take over the points lead and Brad Keselowski would be within 10 points of the leader. But, both wrecked late in the race and now find themselves fifth and fourth, respectively.

Instead, Carl Edwards slipped out of Martinsville with a ninth-place finish and his points lead still intact despite running in mid-pack for much of the race and falling a lap down a couple of times.

Next up is Texas. Last year’s race at Texas was one of the most memorable of the season as Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon fought on the backstretch, Kyle Busch flipped off an official and a myriad of other weird, but entertaining events throughout the race.

Plus, the Chase is as wide open at this point in the season as it has been in many years. By the way, Johnson is now back to within one race’s worth of points out of the lead. Right now it looks impossible, but so did a World Series title for the St. Louis Cardinals when they were 10-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 25.

Might this be the year of incredible comebacks?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rating the Good Sam Club 500: 5 Stars *****

After five relatively boring races to start the Chase, the excitement level jumped up a notch at Talladega. The final restrictor-plate race of the season gets the first 5 Star Rating of the Chase.

Clint Bowyer won yet another photo finish Sunday at Talladega, edging out his teammate Jeff Burton at the line. Bowyer made a great move coming into the tri-oval and just barely kept Burton from coming back to beat him.

This race was one of the best restrictor-plate races since the two-car bump draft has been used in full force. While NASCAR didn’t end the two-car draft with its rule changes heading into the race, it did keep the pack a little closer.

Sunday’s race kind of combined the two styles of drafting. Cars had to be touching to make any speed, but other than Bowyer and Burton at the end, nobody really jumped out from the pack.

Plus, the emotional ride of a restrictor-plate race is unlike any other.

Before the gentlemen start their engines, there is a nervous tension that surrounds the racetrack. Talladega one of the two most exciting tracks on the schedule, but that also means it is one of the two most dangerous, as well, along with Daytona.

The drivers’ eyes tell the story on a Sunday morning at Talladega. There is a little more trepidation than normal, and Dan Wheldon’s wreck last week only made that feeling worse.

Then the race starts and all of the focus turns to the track. The first several laps are usually pretty intense as the field sorts itself out, but then the race settles into a rhythm. That rhythm remains until the laps wind down. Then the tension really starts to pick up.

The little bit larger packs Sunday brought back a few larger wrecks. A.J. Allmendinger and Mark Martin both got turned into the middle of the racetrack. Those spins would’ve taken out 20 cars a couple of years ago, but they also would’ve taken out maybe just a car or two in recent restrictor-plate races.

However, these wrecks are extremely dangerous. The hit Regan Smith took in Turn 4 was unbelievably hard.

After the big wreck, it’s time to settle the race among the cars that are left, and then things get wild as drivers such as Jeff Gordon manage to find their way through a hole that hadn’t even developed yet.

Finally, the final laps turn into a final lunge toward the finish line. This time Burton and Bowyer jumped out after the late restart and were able to settle things before the four-wide pack barreled across the finish line.

There is no other type of race with an intensity level as high for nearly as long. Once a restrictor-plate race is finished, fans often feel more exhausted emotionally than their favorite driver looks after he climbs out of his car.

Overall, this Talladega race was another wild ride. Many people might not like the two-car drafts, but this was the best version of that style of racing so far.

Now it’s time to finish the run to the championship. Carl Edwards extended his lead, Kevin Harvick took a big hit in the points standings, and Jimmie Johnson is 50 points out of the lead. That’s more than a full race, and doubts that he can come back get larger with every passing week.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The pain of death

Auto racing is a dangerous sport. We all get that. However, that doesn’t change the extreme grief and pain that comes along with death.

Former IndyCar Series champion and defending Indianapolis 500 Champion Dan Wheldon died Sunday after an incredibly bad wreck 11 laps into the final race of the IndyCar season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It has been a while since motorsports lost a driver because of injuries sustained in a racing crash in America. The last IndyCar driver to die because of a crash was Paul Dana in 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Dale Earnhardt was the last NASCAR fatality after his wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

That, however, doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult to deal with the death of a racecar driver. One death is by far one too many, and each time a series director has to make that awful announcement, it is the absolutely worst words that have to be said. Unfortunately, we live in a sinful world where things don’t always turn out on the good side.

It is horrible to say, but deaths in auto racing have been fairly common throughout
the years. However, now every national race is on television and racing safety has improved to the point where we all want to hope that the latest death is always the final one.

To say the least, those three hours of ABC’s coverage Sunday were difficult to watch. I’m sure many fans felt those terrible emotions that bubble up during a horrific wreck.

First there’s the shock of what happened. No racing accident is expected, especially one with the severity of Sunday’s wreck.

Then there are the hold-your-breath moments directly after the wreck where you make sure everybody is able to either drive away, as Jimmie Johnson did in the NASCAR race Saturday night at Charlotte, or at least walk away.

In the last decade, that has almost always been the case. No matter how bad the wreck looks, the driver is able to get out of the car. We’ve seen it in both NASCAR and Indycar. Elliot Sadler got out of his car after hitting the inside wall at Pocono head-on, and while Mike Conway didn’t walk away from a wreck at the end of the 2010 Indy 500 when he flipped up into the fence, he still came away with injuries no worse than what would put a football player on injured reserve.

But, when that doesn’t happen, then we are left with that empty feeling of not knowing what is going on and what condition the driver is in. At that point a mix hope and fear starts to set in.

In Earnhardt’s case, everybody saw the ambulance rushing out of Daytona International Speedway. On Sunday, everybody saw the medical helicopter take off. At that point best-case scenarios start to run through people’s mind, such as, “Well, he’s hurt, but it probably isn’t too serious and he will be fine.”

Then we wait.

And then we hear the news.

That’s when the bottom falls out of your heart. The series representative makes the announcement, there is again initial shock and then people start to comprehend what that statement really means. Dan Wheldon will not be coming back.

That feeling is the lowest of lows. Yes, there is nothing worse in racing, but there is also nothing worse in life.

Death is bad. It hurts everybody. People lost not simply a racecar driver Sunday; they lost a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a friend.

Emotions in the wake of Sunday’s accident will surely cover the spectrum. Some will be sad, some will say, “Hey, it’s a dangerous sport,” and some will be angry at the series or the race track or the entire situation.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The hurt of losing someone you personally knew, or knew vicariously through the television, is the worst kind of hurt. Maybe the sport will continue to become safer in the wake of Wheldon’s death, he was the main driver testing a new, safer car model for 2012, but ultimately Sunday was a dark day.

Dan Wheldon will be missed.

Rating the Bank of America 500: 3 Stars ***

The first half of the race was more of the same boring follow-the-leader racing of the first four weeks of the Chase, but then Jimmie Johnson wrecked and guys started to fight for positions. While it still wasn’t a good race, Charlotte does barely jump up to grab a 3 Star Rating.

Without everything that happened at the end of the race, Kyle Busch would have easily put this one to bed. After Greg Biffle had a pit-road miscue to remove him from contention, Busch stomped the field similar to how he won the race in July at Kentucky Speedway.

The first three-quarters of Saturday night’s race was awful. It felt like an extended version of the first three segments of the All-Star race where nobody challenges for a position.

But then the biggest moment of the night happened.

Jimmie Johnson was battling underneath Ryan Newman through turns 1 and 2 when he got loose, tried to save the car and turned up nearly straight into the wall.

The wreck obviously did some major damage to the #48 car and Johnson’s championship run as he is now eighth in the standings and 35 points out of the lead, but it could’ve done some serious damage to Johnson himself.

I think it’s safe to say that anybody who has been a NASCAR fan for at least 10 years held their breath when they saw the #48 car head toward the wall at that angle. On the surface, that wreck looked eerily similar to the one that killed Dale Earnhardt in 2001 at Daytona. The front end of the car caught the apron, pointed the car toward the wall and the driver was along for the ride.

Thankfully, and I know we say this every time there is a hard wreck, both the cars and the walls are incredibly safe.

Just when the quality of racing, or lack of it, starts to gnaw at a race fan’s mind, something like Johnson’s wreck happens and reminds us all that right now the cars have to be built this way. Johnson can now add his list to the half-dozen or so drivers who have had the cars and SAFER barriers save their life, or at least save them from serious injury. But, with Dan Wheldon’s fatal wreck Sunday, the work to improve safety will never end.

Now, the other factor of Johnson’s wreck is that it will take a wild charge from the #48 team to come back and win championship #6. Even with his average runs in the first two races of the Chase, Johnson still was well within striking distance to take the lead. That is now gone. Johnson is going to have to be nearly perfect even to be in the championship conversation come Homestead.

On a lighter note, Matt Kenseth won the race and made a great move to get around Busch after the final restart. He may have won the race by nearly one second, but he had to make the move early in the run or Busch might have been able to hold him off.

Hopefully the finish at Charlotte will spark a wild race at Talladega. The first half of the Chase has been tepid, at best. The rule changes to the cars at Talladega might change the style of racing a bit, but the sport needs a race that has people talking nonstop about the actual race for the following week instead of the championship situation.