With Denny Hamlin’s second straight victory – and fifth overall in the last 10 races – there are plenty of people who are getting ready to crown the No. 11 wheelman as 2010 champion a full 12 races before we even get started on the big old Chase shebang. Clearly, Hamlin is on a tear, but it’s ludicrously premature to be crowning him just yet.
And speaking of hasty, rash and ill-considered predictions, it beggars belief that even the fans of Jimmie Johnson are already falling all over themselves to write off the four-time champion. Folks, he’s had a bad month or so. He’s still the presumptive champ. It speaks volumes for the knee-jerk, non-thinking reaction of the world we live in today that after a poor spell Double J’s already considered yesterday’s news. Come now, people. Come now. That said, it’s fair to say that Johnson winning what would be an unprecedented fifth straight championship is not what the sport needs – in terms of raising waning popularity, bringing fans back to the grandstands and encouraging those who’ve switched off as of late to turn back on their televisions.
So who would be the best champion for the sport of NASCAR in 2010? I’m not talking here, I should add, about who will be atop the points standings post-Miami; rather, I’m speaking about who would be the best ambassador for the sport at a time when NASCAR needs all the good news it can get. I will, however, inject a modicum of sensibility here by only considering the top-21 drivers in the current points standings as realistic contenders. Anyone beneath Kasey Kahne would require an almost biblical-style miracle to find themselves in serious contention this season.
There is, of course, an obvious answer to the question I’m posing, and to be fair this entire article could just be two words: Dale Junior. The 12-year HMS veteran of some 378 races is the undisputed Most Popular Driver and a (long-awaited) championship for the sport’s most famous son would be lauded the length and breadth of the country. Not to mention the fact that Junior has great crossover potential – meaning his is a name that even non-NASCAR fans know.
If not Junior, then, who would make a great story and raise the profile of the sport as the 2010 champ? Up next is the venerable veteran, the raisin man himself, Mr. Mark Martin. For him to finally cross the threshold would be one of the greatest stories in the sport’s rich and illustrious history. In fact, I’d posit we wouldn’t have had a champion with quite such a tale since Alan Kulwicki all the way back in 1992. Yes, Martin is running in the best equipment, but for him to finally get it done after so many years of coming close would be fantastic. One note of caution: We’d have to hear for weeks and months from the know-nothing talking heads about how “weird” it is a 50-something year old can win in NASCAR. Those in the know would, of course, disagree completely (and rightfully so.)
Outside of Junior and Martin, who else would make a great champion for NASCAR? Well, a fifth title at the ninth time of asking for the original four-time, Jeff Gordon, would certainly be a compelling story. Like Junior, Gordon is a crossover star, at ease appearing on Regis & Kelly as he is turning laps at Michigan or Pocono. Carl Edwards is another name that springs to mind in this category, as is Kahne – although on current form, it looks as if both will have to wait another year, at least. A third championship for Tony Stewart – in his second year as an owner/driver – would be another great story for NASCAR and the media-savvy, irascible, and humorous Smoke would have that same type of national appeal, no question.
Then there’s that Colombian fella: Juan Pablo Montoya. Now, it’s probably fair to say there would be a contingent among the fanbase that wouldn’t want to see a foreigner win a Cup title, but in my humble opinion a championship for Montoya would be an extremely positive story for NASCAR. His appeal to the Hispanic audience would only help bring the sport to a new base of fans (and given the way fans are turning off in droves of late, this could only be good.) Plus, it’s not like he’s come over from Formula 1 and dominated – far from it, in fact – so that would at least silence some of the snobs from the world’s premier open-wheel series.
Next, there’s the trio of Richard Childress racers. A championship for the man who replaced the late, great Dale Earnhardt – Kevin Harvick – would be a wonderful story. As indeed would a title after 18 years of trying for Senator-elect Jeff Burton. Likewise for Clint Bowyer, who has come close in the past (he finished third in 2007 and fifth in 2008). And speaking of good old boys, a title for Ryan Newman would be a popular pick. Let’s not forget the Biff, either, who with a Sprint Cup title would become the first driver ever to win a title at all three of NASCAR’s premier racing series. No doubt the Biff, with his laconic humor and laid-back demeanor, would be a fine spokesman for the sport.
Aside from the drivers I’ve already discussed, is there anyone who would be a worse choice for champ than Johnson? I’d argue there would be two. I’ll start with the 2004 champ Kurt Busch. Clearly, the Penske racer is on fine form this year, plus he was the highest finishing non-HMS driver in 2009, but I’d argue that a title for Kurt would be at best ignored and overlooked – at worst extremely unpopular. Another driver I’d put in this category is the last champion under the original points method in 2003 – Matt Kenseth. Now, I know there are plenty of fans of the No. 17. But this man, let’s not forget, is a driver whose championship prompted the powers that be to go to the ill-conceived Chase format in the first place. What would happen if he won again? I shudder to think. Plus, have you ever seen the guy smile? Thought not.
All of which leaves us with the three Gibbs racers: Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. It’s probably still a little early for Joey, who will be a champion one year soon, I’d wager, but for the other two drivers a 2010 title is very much a real possibility. I’ll start with Kyle. Forget about the argument about a new/old KB, what is undeniable this year is that Busch is stringing together solid finishes – even top fives – in races in which he would have imploded last year. He’s a real and genuine threat for the title. But would he be a good champ? Talent-wise, sure, but he’d be a divisive figure. Then again, as Oscar Wilde once said, “too much attention is better than none at all,” and there’s no doubt a Kyle Busch championship would bring attention.
All of which leaves me with Hamlin. The trendy preseason pick to dethrone the Jimmie-bot started slowly, had serious knee surgery, and since then has gone on an absolute tear. What’s key for Hamlin is that he’s winning on different kinds of tracks; no longer a flat-track bully, that bodes well for the entire No. 11 team. So would Denny be a good champion, and would it be a good story? Yes, definitely. Not as much as Junior, Martin, etc. but he’d be a good pick nonetheless. That’s a crucial factor as the sport has stumbled, of late, in terms of popularity, at-track attendance and the all-important TV ratings.
Of course much of this is conjecture, and to be scrupulously fair, shaded by my own personal opinions. So if you think I’ve got it wrong, don’t hesitate to tell me why. Who do you think would be the best 2010 champion for NASCAR, and whom do you think would be a worse choice than Jimmie? Let me know.
And finally, just in case you haven’t noticed, my dear NASCAR brethren, the world’s largest sporting event – the 2010 FIFA World Cup – is currently under way. As a proud Englishman, last Saturday’s draw with the USA was not the result I was hoping for (especially as I work in soccer here in the States), not by any stretch of the imagination. So, to all my Team USA-supporting soccer fanatic friends, congrats on your draw (or “win against the Brits” – not the English, as was the case according to Sunday’s New York Post). You deserved your point – keeper calamity or otherwise. Next time, pre-game, I’ll keep my mouth firmly shut. Promise. Still, could have been worse: at least we didn’t lose.
Enjoy the games, folks. The World Cup is all kinds of special.
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