The Frontstretch: Who Would Be The Best NASCAR Champ For 2011? by Danny Peters -- Tuesday September 27, 2011

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Who Would Be The Best NASCAR Champ For 2011?

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday September 27, 2011


For much of the season, the championship discussion has centered around, “Who can beat Jimmie Johnson…can anyone?” And it’s absolutely right and proper to show deference to the man and team who have eviscerated the competition come Chase time this last half decade. Even with this rough patch, two races in all the debate and argument begins and ends with the Lowe’s Chevy and the implacable Johnson. The rest, until they prove otherwise, are mere pretenders who simply believe they are contenders.

Would NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver have enough national appeal to bring attention to the sport as the next Sprint Cup Champion?

Now, with two races of the Chase squared away and eight more to decide the title, the picture is starting to clear a little. Only Denny Hamlin looks completely out to lunch (or, to put that nicely, ready to concentrate on 2012) but the remaining eleven drivers are separated by a scant 34 points. So, that variety of choices got me thinking – not so much about whom I think will win; and I still think it will be Johnson – but rather, who would be the best champion for the sport? Who would represent NASCAR the best? Who would, importantly, bring in the new fans?

It’s an interesting question to ponder, given all the ups and many downs we’ve seen in NASCAR these past three to four years with falling TV numbers, sparse attendance, difficulties with attracting and securing sponsors and the general level of economic malaise that has beset stock car racing in a more deep-rooted way than perhaps any other major sport. Simply put, the champion is important and a sixth title for Johnson, however impressive a feat that might be — and make no mistake, it really would be a feat for the ages in terms of the history of the sport — would register a huge “eh” with the general public. That is not the type of “boost” Sprint Cup needs, right? So here’s a quick look at each of the 12 drivers (in the current point standings) with some thoughts on what type of champion and ambassador for the sport they would be. I’ve assigned each one a rating out of 10: 10 being the best choice for a champion, and 1 being the worst.

Tony Stewart:
No doubt about it, Smoke would be a popular choice if he was to win a third championship. It seems an age (it is, to be fair – 2005) since Smoke last won the title and if he was to parlay his exceptional early Chase form into hoisting the big wavy trophy in Miami, it would be a win that would be popular with NASCAR fans the country over and it would be a win that other people might notice as well. A good
choice, for an aging driver with limited chances: Smoke turned 40 this year.

Kevin Harvick (-7 pts):
The man who replaced Dale Earnhardt, following his untimely passing at the 2001 Daytona 500 would be another popular choice for a champion. There’s something about Harvick that just screams “race car driver” and were he to manage to unseat Johnson and win the championship, just as with Stewart, it would be a popular result. He might even finally live up to that “Happy” moniker if it actually happened.

Brad Keselowski (-11 pts):
Keselowski is in many ways a very interesting driver. He has literally come out of the blue (deuce) this summer, exploding onto the scene with wins and top-5 finishes. As unlikely as it would have seemed even a month ago, there’s a very real chance Big Bad Brad could run all the way to the title. If he were to win, I think he’d be a popular victor in the NASCAR community (with the odd-rolled eyebrow) but I’m not so sure he has much cross-over appeal.

Carl Edwards (-14 pts):
Edwards is a driver with great cross-over appeal and I, for one think he would be a exceptional ambassador for the sport should he pick up the big prize. Articulate, sociable, intelligent and a great driver, Edwards is the complete package. He’s come close before, falling just 68 points short to Johnson in ’08. If he could win it all this time, I’ve no doubt it would benefit the sport in the long run. 8.5/10

Jeff Gordon (-23 pts):
At 40 years old, the original Four-Time has pulled a 180. Once NASCAR’s biggest villain, there’s a heartwarming sentimentality surrounding a man who may only have two or three more chances to grab a Cup. “Losing” two titles through the Chase format has also helped the Rainbow Warrior win over the fan base; sometimes, an old friend is exactly what you need to take the sport up a level into a new frontier.

Kyle Busch (-26 pts):
Love him or hate him, you can’t help but feel that a championship for the younger Busch brother would be noticed in and out of the sport. He might have one of those faces only a mother could love (this is a quote from a friend, not me) but there’s no doubt the boy can drive. If he rose up all the way to the title this year, it would certainly be interesting (and volatile, perhaps) in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
6.5/10 (trending to 8/10)

Matt Kenseth (-26 pts):
Kenseth was the last “regular points” format champion in 2003, and his relentless consistency that year was widely seen as the precursor to the introduction of the Chase. If he won it again, goodness knows what the powers-that-be would come up with next year. All in all, a second crown for Kenseth would be met with, well, great apathy; the pointed, sarcastic humor we see written on Twitter doesn’t exactly translate onto the small screen.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (-26 pts):
In simple terms, Junior would be the best choice for a champion given his huge fan base and wide appeal. What a story it would be, too, with both father and son (like the Jarretts) winning a championship. It would sure be fun to watch the celebration. 10/10 Winner Winner chicken dinner

Kurt Busch (-28 pts):
Busch might be an even less popular choice for a champion than Johnson. Plus, he’s already won one Chase (the inaugural version of 2004). Trouble with Busch is that he just comes across as a narcissistic, whiny baby. He’s hard to root for and he’d be even harder to get excited about should he win a second championship.

Jimmie Johnson (-29 pts):
See above. It’s time for someone else to win.
5/10 (four points for the achievement)

Ryan Newman (-34 pts):
I’m not sure a Sprint Cup title for Newman would resonate that far. Within the sport, it would be fantastic to see an Army-sponsored car win the title, but Newman is a dry wit and I’m not so sure that deadpan humor would resonate outside the garage. A title for Newman wouldn’t be a bad thing; it just wouldn’t move the sport forward.

Denny Hamlin (-66 pts):
Is he even in the Chase? It doesn’t appear so. But if Hamlin pulled out a miracle and won it, I have to say I’m not sure it would (like Newman) resonate that much.

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Bill B
09/27/2011 07:15 AM

I think you left someone off the list Danny….
cough 24 cough

Michael in SoCal
09/27/2011 10:57 AM

Hahahhhhaaaaa… Nice catch Bill!

Nice catch Bill B. Danny has added his blurb on Gordon and apologizes for the error.

09/27/2011 01:10 PM

The problem with Johnson, Stewart, and Gordon (strictly from a branding perspective) is that they’ve won it before multiple times; why should someone unfamiliar with the sport care now if they didn’t care the 4th time Gordon won a championship?

I’d say the best story (again, from a branding perspective) would be a kid who made it in on the wildcard, someone who nobody expected much from, someone that is from an automotive family from blue-collar Detroit. If I’m flipping channels when football is on commercial breaks, NASCAR should want me to see genuine excitement in Victory Lane, beer spraying everywhere in sheer joy, and the American flag taking a victory lap.

A champion who stands up and rattles off a rehearsed list of sponsors is boring, and the anything-but-spontaneous backflip is pretty tired.

Don Mei
09/27/2011 01:58 PM

OK, think who would make Nascar REALLY crazy? Who would raise hell if he won? Lets go with Kyle. It sure as hell would keep everybody talking and from a branding perspective, don’t ever forget the old adage; “I don’t give a damn what they say about me as long as they spell my name right! “

09/27/2011 02:23 PM

With the 88 winning the Championship we could have an added first, the first winner in Nascar history to take the title without winning a single race. Sorry, but there are fans out there who do not believe Jr. walks on water. It would be the best thing for Nascar and if Brian France could work it, he certainly would get Jr to VL and the Championship, but I would prefer to see the winner of the Championship earn it on the track in some way. Jr is a good mid tier driver. Despite being listed in every Nascar conversation, he has done little to earn it.

I am from Michigan, but there is just something about Keselowski that rubs me wrong. And its not his blue collar roots or the fact that he literally had to drive his way in, and I do believe he has shown he can do more with less, but something in his personality has always been off putting. It would be a great Nascar story were he to win, but not sure how it would translate in the actual fanbase of Nascar. I don’t think anyone short of Jeff Gordon or Dale Jr. would translate across sports lines, as to be honest, for the most part non fans of Nascar could give a crap. Those two are the most recognizable names out there with apologies to Five time as he, (yawn), is the reason many quit watching Nascar after falling in love with Jr. mania early on….

Andy D
09/27/2011 03:34 PM

Best champion would be Johnson. Sure, the general public doesn’t know him , and won’t after he wins his 6th. But they’ve heard of Petty & Earnhardt.

If JJ makes a run to match those two, and does it in an unprecedented 7 straight, the stick & ball guys will fall all over it. More importantly, it will get press during the Chase when NFL is dominating the sportscasts.

I would hate for Jimmie to win six, but seven would be the story of a lifetime.

Brian Stutchman
09/27/2011 04:15 PM

Go back and read the article again. Gordon is about half way down, right above Kyle and was rated 9 out of 10

Bill S.
09/27/2011 06:05 PM

Kyle is the most talked about driver in NASCAR, getting more TV coverage and mentions than even JJ or Junior. He is also fast becoming the second most popular driver at the same time he is also the most hated driver. Absolutely no question, Kyle the Champ would be the very best thing that could happen to NASCAR!

09/28/2011 09:18 AM

Any of the 11 in the chase except the arrogant punk in the 29 car and his thug owner. Black eye for Nascar if these 2 buffoons were to ever luck into the # 1 position

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