*ONE: Why Winning Needs to Mean More*
Both Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart entered Sunday’s 400-miler knowing how strong each other were; Roush Fenway Racing has long made the intermediate ovals their dominion, while Tony Stewart was the hottest driver in all of stock car racing. Regardless of what the math said, both drivers came into the race knowing full well it was going to take a win to take the Cup. And lo and behold, two of Sprint Cup’s heavyweights put on one of the best shows NASCAR racing has seen in recent memory. The last 40 laps of green flag racing were as intense as they come.
Go figure…with winning the only real option for either competitor, the two drivers pushed their cars to the utmost limit and put on a race that was actually worth watching. A solid points finish was not even being considered this Sunday, it was win or lose, and the on-track product was boosted tremendously for it.
Sunday was not a validation that the Chase is capable of producing Game 7 moments in the way stick-and-ball sports have playoffs, but what it did demonstrate is how even with the new points system making positions on the track more visibly important, it does not do enough to reward winning. For crying out loud, Tony Stewart won half of the races in the Chase, and still could only earn a tie against a driver that, despite having a strong average finish, did not win once. The fact that Edwards was unable to beat Stewart to the line this Sunday was appropriate for that exact reason; as consistent as Carl was, 2011 was not his season to close the deal.
But back to the point at hand, winning was the only option Sunday, and the result was a race for the ages. Want to see more of that type of intensity for the other 35 races a year? Put an incentive on the line worthy of it. That might put consistency on the back burner, but I for one will take a boring race with a foregone title at Homestead if it means 30-some other races like Sunday’s throughout the season.
*TWO: How Bad Is This One Going to Hurt?*
Denny Hamlin’s 2011 season was a dramatic regression after he came oh-so-close to a title a season ago, fumbling away the points lead with two races remaining after a win at Texas. Which begs the question…is Edwards in for the same type of slide come 2012?
It’s hard to say because the situations are so different. Hamlin and the No. 11 team choked down the stretch last year, stumbling through a fuel mileage situation late at Phoenix and fell victim to an early spin at Homestead in the finale. Edwards, on the other hand, was on his A game the entire Chase. The No. 99 team averaged a 4.9 finish over the final 10 races, and scored a runner-up result in Sunday’s last event, ironically the same finish that Jimmie Johnson clinched title number five with a season ago. Carl truly did give this Chase his best shot, and it still wasn’t enough.
That’s discouraging in itself. But what could be even more discouraging–and dangerous–for Edwards is the concept of potential. Edwards, even without the title, is among the brightest stars in the sport right now. But on this Sunday, he had a chance to cement himself into legacy by going toe-to-toe with a former champion and a legend in his own right, Tony Stewart. And he failed. Edwards drove the wheels off his machine, but was still completely overwhelmed by the man possessed driving the No. 14.
The stage was set for something legendary this Sunday…and the legend dominated the challenger. Don’t think for one second that thought isn’t going through Edwards’ head, a driver that love him or hate him has made more of a concentrated effort to be a fan favorite and figure in this sport than just about every driver in the field.
2012 will truly show what Edwards is really made of. Bouncing back from this type of disappointment will be an accomplishment in itself, as doing so proved too much for even Denny Hamlin–one of the greater natural talents the sport has seen in recent memory.
*THREE: The Mess That Ford Is In*
Ford was primed for a massive weekend after bringing home a boatload of hardware Saturday, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. winning the Nationwide driver’s title, the No. 60 team the owner’s crown, and Rick Ware Racing’s Timmy Hill securing Rookie of the Year honors. Yet after Sunday, for all the improvements made under the hood this season, Roush Fenway Racing’s biggest gun came up short. And with the ecstasy of Saturday now departed from the Roush camp, the true hole Ford Racing finds itself in is visible.
Roush Fenway Racing, the flagship for the blue oval, has no choice but to reduce its Cup roster for next season given its current sponsor situation. And it’s not just David Ragan being sidelined either; 2003 Cup champion and title contender Matt Kenseth’s future is uncertain now that Crown Royal has departed from the No. 17 team. A third Cup team may well only happen with the backing of both the manufacturer and the race team.
Which in turn spells a problem for the team’s overloaded development stable. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Nationwide title and Trevor Bayne the Daytona 500, yet both drivers were unable to cobble up full seasons of sponsorship for their NNS rides no matter how well they ran. Now, with the $15-20 million it’ll take to keep the team’s veteran presence in Kenseth on track, as things stand, coming out of the same fund that kept the Nos. 6 and 16 cars campaigning in AAA this season, it’s a legitimate question as to whether RFR can keep both drivers running full-time next year…and in what type of race cars. What’s more, the team’s only real Cup ride available for the burgeoning talent pool is the Wood Brothers ride…and based on the way 2011 went Stenhouse could actually make a case for replacing Bayne in it.
There’s no satellite to farm out to either. Richard Petty Motorsports had a solid campaign as a two-car team, but there’s no excess sponsor dollars to be had in an organization recently revived. Front Row Motorsports, meanwhile, is still trying to find backing for the team’s own lead driver in David Gilliland, and have both Travis Kvapil and JJ Yeley on the roster already chomping at the bit for the second seat. For a team that 48 hours ago was primed to become the first race team to ever win both the Nationwide and Cup title in the same season, the aftermath sure is concerning.
*FOUR: The Flaws of the Truck Series Schedule*
Removing the early season trip to the west coast for the Truck Series was the right move to make, but a gap of over a month between the first and second race of the season? A recipe ripe for race fans all but forgetting the series while the year heats up. A return to the Rock was absolutely the right thing to do for a track that’s been back to racing for years and a venue that’s been gravely missed by fans and competitors alike. But that’s the only new venue on the docket.
Sure, a 22-race slate instead of 25 will likely save teams some money. But with all the bullrings in the immediate vicinity of NASCAR’s hub in Charlotte, there’s no way at all to argue that there was no venue out there worthy of giving a Truck race a shot. The move to return Rockingham to the slate makes clear that NASCAR is finally ready to give the venues that the sport abandoned a decade ago another chance…why not add some local short tracks to that list? Why not make a real concerted effort to bring some form of big-time NASCAR back to its roots and learn just how viable the product really is?
With the Truck Series obviously struggling to maintain the foothold it has built (read: continually increasing TV ratings), it’s in need of an identity just as much as the Nationwide ranks. Returning the “tough trucks, tough racing” series to the gritty ovals of the Southeast is both a low-cost means to give the series the dates they’re accustomed to running, a return to the racing fans have been begging for, and even a chance for NASCAR to learn just where they stand in a market they used to own.
It’s a shame to see such an opportunity as the 2012 schedule wasted on another companion-race heavy slate.
*FIVE: Who’s the Favorite for 2012?*
As previously discussed, Carl Edwards and everyone driving a Blue Oval are going to have quite the mountain to climb to secure the Cup next season. And with Tony Stewart’s title, Hendrick Motorsports-affiliated teams have won six consecutive championships. In terms of powerhouse operations on steady ground, Chevrolet is the most stable manufacturer in the the garage (Ford’s got a lack of sponsors, Toyota is losing the Red Bull operation)…and with Kasey Kahne bringing new competitive blood into the HMS fold, the stage is set for a seventh consecutive HMS crown.
The winner? Look no further than the No. 48 team. Hendrick’s equipment was not the reason the streak of five ended, and now the pressure to defend is off. Johnson and Knaus have nothing left to prove, nothing to lose, and you better believe that the evil genius atop the Lowe’s box will be fired up to return to form. Stewart did something remarkable this past Sunday, but a repeat won’t be in the cards.
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