_With eight races left, major NASCAR storylines are heating up as we head towards the stretch run of stock car racing’s nine-month season. Take a look at some of the sport’s big controversies and how we, the Frontstretch Staff think they’ll turn out in a wide-ranging edition of Fact or Fiction._
*FACT: Tony Stewart Is A Contender For The Championship*
I’ve read all of the articles casting doubt over Tony Stewart and No. 14 team and whether they can keep up the roll on which they’ve started the Chase. I mean, who can blame the media for being so down on a team that barely made the playoffs and failed to visit Victory Lane before Chicagoland Speedway last Monday? After all, Stewart had just 11 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races this season before following up with back-to-back wins to open the Chase.
But let’s consider a comment Stewart made in his post-race interview Sunday afternoon.
“Well, we got rid of some dead weight earlier this week. So, it made it a lot easier. It’s been a big weight lifted off our shoulders. Just sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that and it has definitely helped this weekend for sure.”
Since there haven’t been any announcements of team changes or dismissals, we all know what that “dead weight” most likely was, and obviously Stewart is alright with it since he’s the one that mentioned it in his post-race interview. Perhaps that “dead weight” was a big distraction for much of the season and he’s since shaken that monkey off of his back and can place all of his focus on the race team for the remaining eight races this season — Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
Stewart boasts a combined 12 wins at the remaining eight tracks on the schedule and has posted double-digit top-10 finishes at each track except Kansas and Homestead, where he’s only made 11 and 12 starts, respectively. Simply put, top-10 finishes are just as important as race wins when it comes to putting together a championship run. Remember, Jimmie Johnson had just one victory during the Chase last season and in 2006, but he also only had one finish outside the top 10 in 2010 as well — 25th at New Hampshire.
Sure, the owner / driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet only holds a mere seven-point lead over Kevin Harvick, but with the new points system awarding roughly one-third of the points of the old system, you could compare it to a 21-point lead in previous seasons.
I am in no way guaranteeing that Tony Stewart will win the championship. The only way to do that is to have NASCAR fix the final eight races, and that’s just not right. But Stewart’s burst out of the gate in the first two races of the Chase isn’t a fluke and shows that the two-time champion, who missed his usual summer peak, is seeing significant improvement in team performance at a time when it matters most. _Beth Lunkenheimer_
*FICTION: The KHI Ride Swap Between Ron Hornaday, Jr. and Cale Gale For Kentucky Speedway Isn’t Important*
On Monday, Kevin Harvick, Inc. announced a ride switch for Kentucky Superspeedway between Ron Hornaday, Jr. and Cale Gale. Instead of piloting his usual No. 33 Chevrolet, Hornaday will instead wheel the No. 2 Hollywood Casino Chevrolet while Gale will run the No. 33 Rheem Heating, Cooling and Water Heating Chevrolet Saturday evening.
While it is a departure from the norm, it’s a very important decision for KHI. In their final season in the Truck Series, the No. 2 team currently leads Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 18 by 33 points in the owner standings and hopes to close out their ten-year run in the series with an owners’ championship, since the likelihood of a Driver’s Championship is slim-to-none. Also, team owner Kevin Harvick will be in Dover, Delaware and unable to pilot the No. 2 like he has on so many occasions. Hornaday is simply the better driver to put in his place to protect that points lead over the No. 18.
Aside from the obvious behind-the-wheel experience advantage, Hornaday is a four-time series champion that has seven starts at the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, KY. In those seven starts, there are two visits to Victory Lane and a whopping five finishes inside the top 15. Sure, the last two starts at Kentucky Speedway haven’t been the best for the Truck Series veteran — 29th in 2010 and 27th earlier this season — but Hornaday’s performance has been on the upswing lately.
On the flip side, Cale Gale has just a single top-10 finish in the Truck Series and has just two Nationwide Series starts at Kentucky Superspeedway — a 13th in 2007 and an 18th in 2008 — so it only makes sense that the driver with more experience at the track and a better overall performance record would get the nod when making the decision of who will hold on to the owner points lead.
Of course, there are no guarantees come race day on whether either truck will make it all the way through to the checkered flag, but the driver does make a difference. And Ron Hornaday, Jr. is the driver to lean on when it comes to something as important as a championship. _Beth Lunkenheimer_
*FACT: NASCAR Must Address The Start-And-Parks This Offseason*
They’ve been around for years, to the disgust of some and the outright ignorance of others. In fact, there’s even a solid cross-section of the Sprint Cup garage that welcome the start-and-parkers, cars who begin each race with no intention of going the distance. With the options for employment few and far between these days, it’s a way to keep a job in stock car racing, right?
Up until now, NASCAR hasn’t done much to stop the practice of pulling in after only a couple laps on the track. Instead, the sanctioning body seems to be helping to establish a growing business model in order to bank some easy cash. A team, you see, that runs less than 100 miles, then parks doesn’t have to spend money on tires, rent a pit crew or even worry about paying full price for a motor. And during flareups, officials have nagged full-time start-and-park cars to go the distance about once a year. Each week, they select one of them for a full, teardown inspection at the R&D Center, costing that program tens of thousands of dollars as their pull-apart, then rebuilding process also causes each team to bring out a backup car.
But think a moment: With seven full-time start-and-park programs minimum, you’re looking at dealing with that expense maybe five times a season. It’s still not enough to erase the profit margins. Otherwise, the teams wouldn’t be out there each week.
However, their existence also does nothing to continue to grow the legendary level of competition NASCAR likes to tout on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, there’s still no quick fix to handle this problem; NASCAR refuses to reduce the number of cars on the grid from 43 to a far more manageable 36. But based on what we saw this Sunday, it’s an issue the sanctioning body can no longer continue to ignore. A total of eight cars parked it early at Loudon, a season high equivalent to 18.6 percent of the field taking well over $550,000 in purse money. Taking a look ahead, those numbers are only expected to increase in 2012; none of the S&P cars have sponsorship, while the closure of Red Bull Racing combined with the loss of perhaps one, maybe two other full-time teams means you’re looking at a dozen cars lining up to simply park it each week. Can NASCAR stomach a full one-quarter of the starting field each week making a few short parade laps, then heading to the garage? You figure some sort of rule has to come down to eliminate this practice… right? _Tom Bowles_
*FACT: Kurt Busch’s Car Should Have Gotten A Second Look*
There was an interesting omission noticed Sunday night from a usually mundane list of cars selected for post-race inspection. You had Tony Stewart, the Loudon race winner, followed by second-place Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards. Sounds normal enough, right?
Wrong. Here’s a hint as to who might be missing: his car almost didn’t make the starting grid after being held for what seemed like days in pre-race inspection. Yes, Kurt Busch found himself escaping from scrutiny after a 22nd-place finish left him one lap down and out of contention. That ugly ending, hurting him deeply when it came to the Chase was probably the reason NASCAR left well enough alone. But considering the team was kept hanging for so long, officials concerned about not just timeliness but possible violations why not add some follow through? If President Mike Helton thinks things have gotten serious enough he needs to talk to owner Roger Penske in pre-race… wouldn’t you think a second check to ensure everything’s legal after the checkered should come naturally?
In this case, it didn’t. But I’m sure Clint Bowyer, one year removed from a Chase-killing 150-point penalty was sitting back today, catching up on this situation and shaking his head. _Tom Bowles_
*FICTION: Modifieds Are A Strictly Northern Racing Division*
The Whelen All-American series awards its national championship to a driver who competes at a track which hosts a weekly feature series that is eligible for points, whether it is dirt or asphalt, modified or late model. While there is no official demarcation, it is generally regarded that the dirt is in the Midwest, the asphalt is on the coasts and in the South, and Late Models race in the South and West while the Modifieds race in the Northeast. While that might be the popular belief, the fact remains that not only is there a viable tour in the South for Modifieds, they were originally raced in the South.
There is no question that three of the four most famous race tracks to host weekly Modified races are located in Connecticut. Thompson International Speedway, Stafford Motor Speedway and Waterford Speedbowl have all been hosting NASCAR weekly racing series events since the 1950s. These tracks were the stomping ground of Richie Evans and Jerry Cook, the two most famous and successful Modified drivers in the history of the sport. The long and storied traditions of these tracks and the ardent followings of the Modifieds roaring around their tight confines could easily convince a casual fan that the only real Modified racing takes place in that area of the country.
It may very well be the hotbed of Modified racing, and the home of the Whelen Modified Tour, but it is not the only area, nor is it the original location, of Modified racing. NASCAR also has a Southern Modified Tour and during their schedule they race at the true home of Modified competition. Bowman-Gray Stadium is the longest running weekly NASCAR race track in the country, having hosted its first Modified event on May 18th, 1949.
How steeped in tradition is it? Bill France started the racing at Bowman-Gray, Bill France Jr. met his wife Betty at the track, and Ben Kennedy, the great-grandson of Big Bill France competed there in a K&N East race this Summer. The television series Madhouse was about the racing at the famous track, which routinely brings in 10-15,000 fans every week for their weekly racing program. The competition in the Southern Modified ranks is every bit as competitive as that in the Northern ranks, as evidenced by Burt Myers winning the North/South shootout on two occasions.
Modifieds are certainly the most popular racing vehicles in the Northeast and the best who have ever driven them came from the tight bullrings of New England. While those facts are unquestionable, the racing in the Modified division in the South is just as competitive and just as intense, showing the true roots of the sport were firmly entrenched in Carolina clay well before they ever set down in New England. – _Mike Neff_
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