NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Shakedown Session: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love NASCAR

A popular refrain from many a NASCAR fan has been the complaints about the sport in general, from the ever-changing rules, the implication of selective enforcement of NASCAR’s rules and by-laws, fans hating fuel mileage racing, how the Sprint Cup Series has no personalities in it, how Cup drivers come in and beat up the weak sister Nationwide and Truck Series regulars, and so on. With all the pessimism from fans, it was best summed up by a Dave Moody quote on Twitter several months back that some fans would bitch if NASCAR gave out free ice cream because it had sprinkles it.

Speaking as someone who this time a year ago was honestly just a fan of NASCAR, it was easy to sympathize with these fans who complained about everything. It’s safe to say this has been a trying year on professional and personal levels getting acclimated to being on the media side of things from being a fan, and a frustrated one at that, less than a year ago. But this year has been a reminder in this humble columnist’s opinion why he loves NASCAR and why he doesn’t worry about NASCAR’s issues anymore.

For starters, this Sprint Cup season has been a fun menagerie of the unexpected, a plethora of first-time winners, a five-time defending champion not looking quite so dominant, and many other things along the way that have shocked fans and, despite most of the general jaded cynicism in our line of work, the media.

Apologies in advance if this seems like “cheerleading”, but at the first of the season had anyone said that NASCAR would see Trevor Bayne, a relative unknown in only his second career race win the most prestigious race in NASCAR in the Daytona 500, then see other first time winners such as Regan Smith, a guy whose racing career up to that date had been mostly filled with bad luck or no luck, at Darlington. Also, the oft-maligned David Ragan, who it seems has been on the perennial hot-seat for several seasons, winning at Daytona in July. There has also been Paul Menard winning the Brickyard 400 at the track where he spent his youth with his father, home improvement mogul John Menard, who tried for over three decades to win a race at Indianapolis only to have his son win the race.

To wrap up the parade of first-time winners, Marcos Ambrose, a guy who had come oh-so-close to his first win last year at Infineon until stalling his car under caution while trying to save fuel, which is the racing equivalent to have the deed to a dream house signed and on the way to the bank, dropping it in the sewer. He would find redemption at Watkins Glen in a frantic, hellacious two-lap dash for the victory, beating out Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch for the win.

Speaking of Keselowski, here’s a guy who was practically persona non grata last year in the Sprint Cup ranks. Oh sure, he tore it up in the Nationwide Series, but let’s be real here fans, that’s honestly like a UFC fighter beating up a 98-pound high school freshman. In the Cup side of things, he was somewhat of a disappointment in his freshman Cup season, struggling in mid-pack. Even with Paul Wolfe in the first half of 2011, Keselowski struggled. But during the second half of the year, it has been like someone has flipped on a light switch for Brad and he’s been finishing consistently in the top-5 to top-10 range each week with three wins during the course of the season. It certainly seems as if Brad has finally started to realize his potential and has put himself with a legitimate chance to win a Sprint Cup championship. Not too shabby for a guy who was 25th in points earlier this year!

And oh yes, how can anyone forget the “fuel mileage” races? Eight out of 28 of NASCAR’s races this year have been decided by fuel mileage. Admittedly, it can get irritating to constantly see races come down to who has the most fuel left at the end, but for NASCAR fans who have been long in clamoring for a new top dog, there is a silver lining in these races. Thanks in part to Jimmie Johnson’s lack of mastery in the fuel mileage department, the door has been left ajar for a new savior to be anointed. Johnson has started off his 2011 Chase on the ropes, in tenth, 29 points back from points leader Tony Stewart. There’s also been signs of strain between Johnson and Chad Knaus over the radio. Now the $64,000 question (dated reference) is can a new face capitalize where Denny Hamlin failed to do so last year in the next eight races?

By the way, let’s not forget NASCAR’s Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series and mention the great points battles for those championships. In the Nationwide Series, this has truly been the “coming out party” for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Last year, he was trying his damndest (albeit inadvertantly) to live out the infamous “I want you to hit the pace car!” line delivered by Robert Duvall in “Days of Thunder.” This year? Night and day difference. Stenhouse, Jr. has finally blossomed into the potential future star he has long been hyped to be by Jack Roush. Plus, he has a teammate in Trevor Bayne who overcame a mystery illness to come back into the racing fray with a mighty roar of his Roush-Yates powered chariot.

There also has been the continued resurgence of guys such as Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson in the Nationwide Series. These guys have gone from mid-pack (at best) Cup drivers to rebuilding and reinventing their careers in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Also, one would be hard-pressed to forget Justin Allgaier, who was this time last year in danger of becoming the next Stephen Leicht, finding himself a home with Turner Motorsports.

It’s also hard to not talk about the exciting “Rookie Of The Year” battle in the Nationwide Series between Timmy Hill and Blake Koch. While it’s uncertain what these guys will do in the long term scheme of things, the battle for the top rookie honors has most certainly been worth mentioning.

Speaking of fantastic rookie battles, the battle in the Truck Series has just been ferocious between Cole Whitt, Joey Coulter, and Parker Kligerman. Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Miguel Paludo have also been competitive at times and even Johanna Long, in her limited funding and limited starts, has showed signs of promise. But, the true future stars of NASCAR are Whitt, Coulter, and Kligerman. Whitt came out of the gate strong, even leading the overall points at one time before falling back in the latter part of the season. Kligerman and Coulter both struggled initially but have found themselves becoming legitimate contenders as of late.

As for the Truck Series points battle, it’s been a dogfight between Johnny Sauter, James Buescher, Austin Dillon, and Timothy Peters. All but Buescher have managed to win races this year, even against Cup drivers. Make no mistake, the ascension of Dillon, Sauter, and Peters is remarkable, but Buescher’s rise to this position is nothing short of almost selling ice cubes to eskimos after missing a race at Phoenix earlier in the season.

Sure, there’s still some problems in the lower series, such as the issue of start & parking to fill fields, the annoying Cup presence, and so on in addition to the complaints fans have about the Cup series that were listed earlier, but for now, why don’t we just kick back, take stock of this season, and actually (Gasp!) focus on the positives of the year for once, hmm?

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