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2009: The Year That Wuz, Part II

Editor’s Note: For Part I of Matt’s look back at the 2009 Sprint Cup season, click here.

2009 Drivers: Pleasant Surprises

Mark Martin: I think Martin has either retired, semi-retired or threatened to retire more times than Tommy Smothers. But this year, he was firmly committed to running a full season and even competing for that elusive championship at age 50. Martin did, in fact, win five races and made a valid and competitive drive for the title. In the process, he was so dang upbeat and positive, it was as if Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore had suddenly appeared in a music video singing “Walking on Sunshine” dancing through a field of daffodils. In the end, the veteran’s Quixotic quest for the title came up just short – as it probably always will. But Martin was in full on Charlie Brown mode this year. He was going to try to kick that football this season even if fate, in the form of Lucy, was going to yank it away at the last second.

Still, even though everyone knew the ending, it was fun to watch – and a reminder that even if he lacks the hardware in his trophy case, Martin is a champion. He’s one of the greatest racers this sport has ever seen, and a class individual to boot. Shine on brightly, you crazy old man….

Tony Stewart/Stewart-Haas Racing: I’ll admit it. When Stewart decided to leave the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing to stake his fortune with Haas CNC, an outfit that struggled to be merely hapless as its eponymous leader served hard time in prison, I thought the venture was doomed to fail. In fact, I thought it would fail spectacularly, and probably wouldn’t survive the season. Umm… I was wrong. Big-time wrong. Major league, yahoo, big-time wrong. Whoops. In fact, I think I either said in print or predicted to friends that by this time this year, Stewart would be dumpster diving for Thanksgiving dinner in a dumpster behind Burger King. (Well, maybe he did, given his fondness for Whoppers and his girth… but it wasn’t because he couldn’t afford a turkey or the trimmings.)

Well now, I’m left eating crow instead (Whatever; it ain’t that bad with a little A-1 and horseradish sauce.) Stewart, in fact, won four races this year, including the Firecracker 400, earned 23 top-10 finishes and finished sixth in the points. What’s more, his teammate and employee Ryan Newman finished ninth in the standings after posting 15 top-10 finishes. Now, how would this duo and Stewart-Haas Racing do if NASCAR clamped down on the incestuous relationship between the team and the Rick Hendrick sugar teat that feeds them? Well, on a brighter note, Burger King isn’t going to start locking their dumpsters anytime soon….

Juan Pablo Montoya: When Juan Pablo drifted into stock car racing after a tumultuous Formula 1 career, there was no doubt he brought a lot to a table. His fiery personality was the perfect antidote for fans who thought modern drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are a bit too vanilla. On the track, his hard driving style endeared him to folks who still get a little misty-eyed every time they hear the number 3, and his Hispanic heritage gave some credence to NASCAR’s failed Drive for Diversity in a sport that is whiter than Wonder Bread.

The first two seasons for Montoya in Cup were a bit of an up-and-down affair; but 2009 was a whole different story, as he actually competed for race wins and led laps. In fact, his aborted chances at winning the Brickyard 400 after a pit-road speeding penalty might qualify for the biggest heartbreak of the season for anyone who doesn’t have the number 88 tattooed somewhere on their body. After making the Chase (no small achievement for an EGR driver) Montoya started his championship drive hotter than an Alabama Fourth of July, scoring four top-five finishes in the first four playoff races before it all started to come apart. He came up lame down the stretch, but this guy is going to be a player, mark my words.

Marcos Ambrose: Even if he isn’t your favorite driver, and even if you loathe Toyota’s involvement in NASCAR to half the degree I do, you can’t help but grin when Ambrose runs well. In a world of cartoon cutout drivers spewing sponsor mentions like a fat kid goes through Baby Ruth bars, Ambrose is big as life and twice as real. Yeah, he talks funny, but folks from Down Under tend to do that. (It’s like they learned English from a guy from England.) But four top 10 finishes and seven top 10s, with a resultant 18th-place finish in the points, are nothing to sneeze at. Ambrose might have finished even better, too, if the wheels hadn’t fallen off his little red wagon after a third-place finish at Bristol in August. Normally, I find people as upbeat as Ambrose downright annoying, but it’s hard not to like Marcos. If he doesn’t qualify for Martin’s fossil status, Ambrose is 33 and in just his second year on the Cup circuit – the way God intended these things to play out.

2009 Drivers: Biggest Disappointments

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: This was supposed to be the year it all happened for Earnhardt. Heading into the second year of his pairing with HMS, it was the time he was finally going to start winning races and competing for titles after having had a year to adjust. Well, that didn’t work out so well, did it? Earnhardt not only missed the Chase but he finished 25th in the points, fending off advances from the start-and-parkers most weeks.

Junior wasn’t simply bad… he was horrid. Two top-five finishes in 36 races? A total of five top 10s in those 36 races driving for the team that dominated the sport this season? Well, there’s no question which was the runt pup in Hendrick’s litter this year, was there? Some say that the declining interest in NASCAR racing is attributable to Junior’s lack of success. If that’s the case, put out the fire and call in the dogs, as things would have to be merely horrible to improve the fortunes of their lot. Some say Junior lacks focus; others are bolder and say he simply lacks talent. Whatever the case, the fan base Earnhardt inherited from his famous father is growing frustrated and suddenly lacking excuses as to why their boy is running like a three-legged lamb that’s been grazing in the Whacky Tobacky field. I’m guessing his former employer Teresa Earnhardt was sporting a wicked grin as she carved this year’s Thanksgiving turkey, thinking to herself, “OK, so it wasn’t my fault after all, huh, Junebug?”

Roush Fenway Racing: You’ve got Chevy fans. (A lot of them.) You’ve got Ford fans. (A lot of them.) Roush Racing is supposed to be the foil that keeps Hendrick Motorsports from dominating the way they did this year. Whether you think two, possibly three, superteams dominating the sport is good for the sport’s future, it beats watching a boxing match with only one fighter in the ring. But that’s what happened in 2009, as Chevy’s main competition came up surprisingly lame throughout the year.

Among the disappointments at RFR was former Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who failed to even make the Chase even after winning the first two events of the year including the Daytona “By Gawd“ 500. Carl Edwards, who led the league with nine victories last year, failed to win even a single Cup event this season. To compound things, he broke his foot playing… are you frickin’ kidding me… Frisbee. When did Cup drivers go from Men of Steel to China Dolls? Greg Biffle also failed to win a race, and while he made the Chase, he was such a minor asterisk in the actual competition that he’ll end up with his name as an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question if he keeps running like he did.

The back half of the Roush fleet wasn’t much better, either. Outgoing driver Jamie McMurray won Talladega for a small, late-season boost, but few folks noticed with so many cars on their roofs or set ablaze. David Ragan? Let’s just say UPS had its downs this year. But Jack Roush is a prideful man, and he’d clearly gone beyond simmering to a full boil by the end of 2009. My guess is the Roush teams will run better in 2010; otherwise, look to see Cup races broadcast on the Hungarian Cooking Channel after the next few years.

Kyle Busch: It’s hard to call Kyle Busch’s three-wide 2009 campaign a total failure with four Cup victories, nine in Nationwide (to go along with a title) and seven Truck Series wins. But Busch started out the season hot, winning at least one event every weekend as winter gave way to spring even here on the upper right coast. It actually seemed at times that Busch’s success faltered a short time later, when he made that ill-considered decision to smash the Sam Bass-designed guitar trophy at Nashville after winning the Nationwide race. The move proved unpopular to say the least, and merited a lot more written words than it deserved. If you didn’t know Kyle Busch was a bunghole by then, you weren’t paying attention, but perhaps a little Karmic payback was in order – and it happened in the form of just enough bad luck to miss the playoffs by a scant seven points. The inconsistency on the Cup side proved an unsolvable problem, leading to the dismissal of crew chief Steve Addington and the promotion of Nationwide whiz kid Dave Rogers to man the ship in 2010.

Through it all, win or lose, Busch continued to be his petulant, self-aggrandizing self, with a chip on his shoulder that would crush the sidewalks in Manhattan to dust. But here’s the scary thing: this sport needs him to compete for titles, win races, and say truly loathsome things after he wins or loses. Kyle Busch is the perfect antidote to Johnson. To have the polished and methodical Johnson lose a title to the mercurial and rambunctious Busch after several on-track incidents throughout the season would do more to increase interest in the sport than anything else other than Earnhardt Jr. running worth a damn. There’s just one driver that can keep Kyle Busch from winning a Cup title… and that driver is Kyle Busch.

Richard Childress Racing: This is the organization that invented Dale Earnhardt the Original. They won six titles together. Every week, they were there in the hunt, and people were either on their feet cheering or jeering. So how did the once proud RCR organization fail to win a single race this year, despite a roster of three talented drivers and Casey Mears? It boggles my mind – and my mind isn’t easily boggled after all these years in the saddle riding tramp. Clint Bowyer finished 15th in the points, Jeff Burton finished 17th, Kevin Harvick finished 19th and Mears finished 21st. Jezum Crow, Auntie Em, turn out the lights, I don’t want to see any more… Mama told me not to come, that ain’t no way to have fun, Son. At least there was a positive end to the story, as the RCR group showed marked improvement over the last few races of the season. That bodes well for 2010, although without sponsorship for Mears they may trim back down to three cars.

Joey Logano: OK, so he won Rookie of the Year honors. That’s like saying the United States somehow prevailed in the invasion of Grenada. Meteorological nymphs allowed Logano to win at New Hampshire when all the fast cars had pitted and the rain began to fall, allowing him to put his name in the record books a second time as the youngest winning Cup driver in history. But that victory was one of just three top fives that Logano earned this year, en-route to an average finish of 20th that left him 20th in the season standings. If I’m recalling correctly, and my brain is more calcified than my teeth lately, Stewart (the former driver of the Home Depot car) and Denny Hamlin did quite a bit better than that in their rookie seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s been a while since anyone has called Logano “Sliced Bread,” as in the greatest thing since sliced bread was invented. Maybe now he goes by “The Clapper” as in the greatest thing since the Clapper was invented.

Things NASCAR Fans Can Live Without in 2010

Little Digger: I’m told Little Digger has his fans. I’m also told that there’s on online petition to have Britney Spears inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame now that’s she’s not shooting up anymore. Such folks exist, and that scares me. But of all the issues that affect the sport, my readers at least are 100% united in their passionate loathing for that gopher and the animated pack of vermin that are his friends – along with Darrell Waltrip, who is slightly less animated but still annoying as Hell. In the face of declining ratings, FOX could make no move so simple as simply having Lumpy run over Little Digger on a zero-turn, ending the misery to prove they intend to quit with the lame comedy info-tainment and return to the respectful sports broadcasting this sport deserves in 2010. Leave comedy to Scrubs, please – and quit trying to sell plush stuffed toys to morons.

Start-and-Parkers: You can’t blame a guy for cashing in on an easy paycheck. It’s kept the Screen Actors Guild in business for decades. But the notion of a certain amount of entrants fighting to qualify for the race though they don’t have a crew chief, a pit crew or even a spare set of tires rubs a lot of fans the wrong way. What’s the harm, you might ask? Because they only focus on qualifying to make the show and cash in their checks, the start-and-parkers are depriving potential new teams a slot to make the race and perhaps grow into real contenders. If NASCAR has to reduce the fields to 35 potentially competitive cars rather than allowing the cynical freeloaders a spot in the show, I’m all for it. Washington, D.C. has the market cornered on corporate welfare anyway.

New dates for Kansas or Chicago: Yeah, Kansas added a casino and Chicago is a big TV market, but what this sport needs is less dates at cookie cutters and more races held at competitive venues. A return to Rockingham and a second date at Darlington would go a long way towards fixing what ails NASCAR and drives the fans away. And if there’s a God on Heaven, and I am convinced there is, I might live long enough to see Cup cars competing at North Wilkesboro annually before I start gumming Jell-O in the aging biker hippie home.

The Chase: Hot-rodders live by the axiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well the Chase is broken, and 2009 offered ample evidence of that. By the end of another miserable year with this system, NASCAR officials conceded the Chase might need “tweaking.” Tweaking? That’s like a doctor prescribing aspirin for cancer. I say it’s high time to blow that mother up and start over. – or, just hand the Cup champion trophy to Johnson this February and end the stupidity.

What To Watch For In 2010

The Drive For Five: Right now, it looks like there’s no team that can dethrone Johnson and the No. 48 bunch – but it once seemed no one could unseat Jeff Gordon, either. The same goes for Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Earnhardt in their primes as well. Remember, the toughest thing about being the King of the Mountain is there’s nowhere to go but down… and it can be a hard tumble.

Roush Returneth?: Jack Roush doesn’t like being beat. He likes getting beat like a cheap drum for nine months even less… and he especially hates being beat by Rick Hendrick and that crew. So, you can bet the Thanksgiving turkey went cold on many plates, as Roush and his boys burnt the midnight oil that night looking for a way to beat HMS. There’s going to be a lot more oil burned and cold dinners during this offseason, too, as the team works to get themselves back in the game. Think of HMS and Roush as the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles… they don’t give a damn who wins the Super Bowl, as long as they beat each other.

Will Kyle Busch Outgrow Pre-pubesence and Grow a Pair?: Kyle Busch is the most dangerous driver in this sport. When he’s on his game, you’re not going to beat him. He’s going to beat himself, which he often does throwing a mid-race tantrum that makes Earnhardt Jr. sound like a Smurf on the radio. But just imagine if Kyle Busch grows up over the offseason, finds a crew chief who can put up with his crap, and reaches his potential. Within a decade, people would be asking, “Jimmie Who?”

Just Gone, or Long Gone and Lonesome?: Can NASCAR win back their fans or even lure them back into buying tickets to the races again? The economy shows some signs of improving, and people have a pent-up need to be entertained. For some long-term fans, hope springs eternal each February. And America’s love affair with fast, loud cars dates back to the day when Henry Ford was browning his diapers. As it stands written in the Book of Bruce, “Man, the dope is there’s still hope.”

Detroit Medley: Chrysler is now owned by Fiat and GM and their Chevy brand are off the ropes — but still bleeding heavily around swollen eyes swinging wildly trying to reach the next round. Is Detroit going to stay involved in sponsoring NASCAR teams and funding technical research, even while kept alive on government largesse? And with corporate sponsors leaving the sport in stampedes, can even the big teams survive without factory funding?

2010 to Be Considerably Safer: How could it not be? Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon are cutting back to part-time schedules! That will just leave Waltrip more time to injure motorcyclists off the track taking an illegal U-turn.

The Car of Yesterday?: Two primary goals of the Car of Tomorrow were to make passing easier and to eliminate the plates at Talladega and Daytona. Well, the new car has failed miserably on both counts. So is this the season that NASCAR finally admits this dog not only won’t hunt, it won’t even get out of the back of the SUV to enter the woods? Sooner or later, it’s got to happen. It’s just a matter of if there’s anyone who gives a flying fig when it does.

And, in closing… I wanted to send out best wishes for what will likely be a difficult holiday season for David Poole’s family, as a great writer and a great man was silenced by a heart attack shortly after the spring Talladega race. I miss reading Poole’s comments, and the sport is poorer for the loss of his voice. As a fellow writer, Poole’s work has always inspired me to work harder and write better. We might have been diametrically opposed with our views on some issues, but I always respected and liked the guy. It’s fitting his final set of columns on that spring Talladega race were some of his best work ever. So RIP, Mr. Poole. I’ll see you down the road someday, and we can finish our arguments.

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