Race Weekend Central

Ripping Reporters: Busch, Stewart Highlight NASCAR Driver/Media Tension

The “Have At It Boys, Era!” in NASCAR was supposed to create driver rivalries with their peers – not the press box. But as the 2011 season turns toward the playoffs, one of the biggest battles to watch leading into the Chase isn’t Johnson-Gordon, Harvick-Kyle Busch or even brother Kurt versus Johnson.

Nope. It’s drivers versus the NASCAR beat reporters who cover them.

Certainly, this topic isn’t one most media, especially those at-the-track each week want to touch with a ten-foot pole. I can imagine fans aren’t too thrilled about it, either, more interested in a competitive year with seven, possibly eight drivers in position to win a wide-open Chase. But the sheer number of conflicts, each involving high-level drivers have forced the issue; this weekend alone, three tiffs between drivers and reporters have reflected a continuing, on-and-off tension they’ve had with the media at large.

Despite Numbers, Johnson Not a Clear Favorite This Time

If there is absolute truth in racing, it is that nothing is as it seems. After all, it seems as though, right on schedule, five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is finding his stride. After 24 races, Johnson is tied for the points lead and has put up better numbers than he has since 2006. It seems like Johnson, with his stellar record at nearly every track he’ll see in the Chase, would be the odds-on favorite to win his sixth title in a row.

But nothing is as it seems.

Despite Johnson’s numbers (one win, 10 top-5 finishes, a series-best 16 top 10’s), it’s much harder to peg him as the favorite heading into the Chase. In fact, it’s hard to define a favorite at all; a streaking Brad Keselowski had an inconsistent first half of the season, Kyle Busch has a series-leading five wins and the reputation of falling apart in the Chase, Carl Edwards is slumping and Jeff Gordon just needs the barest _something_ to grab a title. Again, it seems like Johnson, who has five top 5’s and six top 10’s in the last seven races, should have an advantage as he’s coming on strong just when he needs to.

Setting The Table: Heavyweight Fighters Gearing Up On Johnson

Three weeks into August, the only thing missing from NASCAR’s Race to the Chase is that boxing announcer obnoxiously shouting, “In _THIS_ corner…” No, I’m not talking about the “wild card” race, or even the $3 million dollar _Sprint Summer Showdown of the Century!_ (Or so the phone company says). Instead, it’s some “playoff posturing” among the men already guaranteed to make the cut that’s becoming a major story. While “Junior Watch” continues, in between some frantic fighting over a wild card winner who will promptly fall flat over the final ten-race stint for the title the challengers to Jimmie Johnson’s five-time throne are making some serious statements – not mincing words or the accelerator towards a certain man who wears No. 48 on those boxing gloves.

Mother Nature Plays Racing God: Victors And Victims From Pocono’s Sunny Ending

When we look back on the 2011 Chase field, likely to include Brad Keselowski NASCAR’s new “iron man” has but one woman to thank for his inclusion. No, it’s not his mother, nice as she is or the nurses that helped him heal in the hospital after Road Atlanta. It’s not even the Lady In Black, a Darlington track whose third-place result spurred Keselowski’s initial comeback in May. Instead, the answer comes as simply as standing outside, looking up at the clear blue sky one sunny day and appreciating the type of perfect weather for racing we weren’t supposed to have for long on Sunday afternoon.

What a nice little assist Kes got from Mother Nature, right? After a raging thunderstorm stopped the racing, forcing out the red flag on Lap 124 for all intents and purposes, most fans and drivers thought the 500-mile race would be rain-shortened. Indeed, a quick look at the forecast and the radar meant no one would have blamed NASCAR if they didn’t dry the track, pronounced it a lost cause and ended the event right then and there. The fact that they didn’t, rolling the dice and making an ending happen changed the face of the race and in some cases, perhaps altered the course of driver’s seasons. How important was restarting this race? These drivers can tell you… let’s start with the losers first.

This Race At Pocono Brought To You By… The Letters K, J, And The Number Two

I’m a stats guy living in a writer’s body, a failed mathematician with a healthy dose of superstition on the side. So it’s no surprise to me that as Brad Keselowski crossed the finish line, completing one of the great “iron man” performances in recent history all that I could think about was similar to a closing line from Sesame Street:

_This race has been brought to you by the letters K, J, and the number two._

Sounds silly, right? Especially considering what Keselowski did was a physical feat rarely equaled in NASCAR’s Chase era; only Denny Hamlin’s torn ACL, then seemingly instantaneous recovery post-surgery in Victory Lane at Texas last season can compare. It was a _two-pronged_ lift for the driver in his sophomore season – comments after the race, humbly praising soldiers killed in Afghanistan as the real heroes also moved mountains in establishing himself as a role model, not a rebel amongst the fan base. Off the track, Keselowski can no longer be viewed by his peers as a one-hit wonder; he’s the first driver in years to move up the ranks the right way, from Trucks to Nationwide to Cup and develop into a proven major-league talent.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness… But In NASCAR, It Can Buy You Time

Five years. 167 starts. Four different Sprint Cup organizations. For Paul Menard, the numbers were adding up everywhere but the victory column as his racing career floundered somewhere between “rich kid taking up space” to simply irrelevant at 30 years old and counting. Indeed, a random survey of 50 people on the street, hours before Sunday’s Brickyard 400 would likely end with 49 asking the question, “Paul who?”

Paul, now a winner at the most famous speedway in America – that’s who.

Battling Against The Beast

As the Sprint Cup Series ends its final off week this Monday, the biggest story affecting the sport has little to do with Nashville’s empty crowd, Carl Edwards’ free agency or even the whispered rumors of memos warning against little to no one attending Indy’s Brickyard 400 (if you believe what you hear, attendance will consist of a midget, two old ladies who got lost and Tony George – it’s the only way he can get in!) No, the strongest punch to the face comes in the form of an… ow, ow ow ow ow.

That hurt.

Ugly Ending Has Earnhardt Heading Towards Chase Self-Destruction

Just one month ago, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Steve Letarte seemed joined together in perfect harmony, the newly wedded driver/crew chief couple evolved into the Comeback Story of the Year. Coming within a whisker of victories not once, but twice it seemed all but certain NASCAR’s Popular Driver was on the precipice of ending a well-documented, excessively frustrating three-year Victory Lane drought that hangs like a two-ton anvil over his head. Third in the standings after Pocono in June, a happy work marriage for the duo – plus the Chases, title bids and national exposure that came with it – seemed inevitable.

Fans Speak Out On Kentucky: A First-Person Account Of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

_As The Kentucky Speedway Turns_ had its latest plot twist Monday, two days after the sport’s newest Cup Series track took one on the chin with appalling traffic conditions that left even government officials late or unable to attend the race. A Republican State Senator, David L. Williams is pledging to hold hearings on the issue, claiming there’s a “responsibility” to investigate the matter of public safety; after all, some fans were stuck in their cars for seven hours plus only to be turned away at the door. On the flip side, “I’m sorry” was the new modus operandi for Kentucky track president Mark Simendinger, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.’s owner Bruton Smith and even his son, SMI President Marcus, all of whom got into the action with various romantic apologies._

Oh No, You Didn’t: Marred Kentucky Debut Leaves Unanswered Questions

You never want a new, flagship event to fizzle into a long list of Negative Nancy items by the checkered flag. But by the finish of Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Kentucky, when one public relations director actually noted the National Guard was needed to curb a chaotic outflow of traffic you could sense this event will be talked about at the water cooler Monday for all the wrong reasons. If anything, NASCAR was shouting U.S.A. ten times louder than anyone Sunday during the Americans’ dramatic comeback at the World Cup; it’s the one start to the workweek where they’ll be happy to get ignored, those women taking the spotlight off their moment of shame.

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