Holding A Pretty Wheel

Johnson Gives Fans Plenty to Talk About-But Really, Now…

Halfway through the Chase for the 2009 Sprint Cup, things are…well, things are predictable. Jimmie Johnson has the points lead (I know, shocker). No. 48 haters, can, I suppose, take heart in one statistic: no winner of the fall race at Charlotte has ever gone on to win the whole shebang. But really, around NASCAR Kingdom, many fans and media are firmly (if prematurely) focused on Johnson. Part of that is natural--Johnson is, after all, the reigning (and reigning and reigning) series champion, and that alone draws a certain amount of scrutiny. Being the point leader five races from the end is going to draw attention. There have been four pervading storylines this week focused on the No. 48 this week, and there have been a whole lot of headlines surrounding them. The problem is, all four are a bit…er, misguided.

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It’s All Fun and Games — But In NASCAR, Someone Is Bleeding to Death

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Remember hearing that phrase as a kid? It was usually connected to doing something like running with scissors or sword fighting with your brother with the kitchen knives. Or at least when the “fun” was getting out of hand and becoming potentially dangerous. Hence, the lecture. Things are getting out of hand.

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Brian Vickers On the Brink Of the Ride Of His Life

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The signs were there well over a year ago-it was just a matter of time, a matter of a little more experience, a matter of a little luck. And when it mattered the most, the young driver from North Carolina (a dying breed now) found that little bit extra, that little bit _more._ And some race fans were taken by surprise when all was said and done. It certainly wasn’t easy, and at times it wasn’t pretty, either. It all came down to one race and finally, one lap. And Brian Vickers made that lap count-made it count for all the naysayers who called him crazy for leaving the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.

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Really?!

Strange things are afoot at the Circle K. Or at least it seems that way lately. Maybe it’s just me, but several tidbits lately have me doing a double take. I know it’s called silly season for a reason, but this year has gone beyond silly and right on into downright ridiculous. The latest piece of news is that Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports will merge in 2010. That one came straight out of left field. The first thing that comes to mind is yet another person trying to get by on the Petty name. The second is that I feel kind of sorry for Reed Sorenson, even if he’s not the world’s greatest driver, because he’s at least as good as Paul Menard, who will get the No. 43 (I’m guessing on the number; one of them will keep it for sure) ride for no reason other than his family’s money.

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Is There Loyalty Left in NASCAR?

There is a trend I’ve noticed in racing lately, and I don’t like it. It seems like everywhere you turn, a team is firing a driver for nothing he caused, a fan is picking a new favorite when old number one isn’t winning so much, a sponsor is dropping a prospect for a big name or a veteran for the Next Big Thing. People, places, and things that have been a part of the sport for decades find themselves suddenly on the outside looking in. Everyone’s an opportunist, and everyone wants instant gratification. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no loyalty in NASCAR.

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Five Who Would Like to Forget: Who Isn’t Meeting Expectations?

Last week in this column, I discussed the seasons of five drivers who were having a rather unpublicized good year. But there are also drivers who, while well inside the top 35 cutoff in points, are having a season that is fraught with disappointment-the kind of year in which everyone from media to fans to your own grandmother wonders what the heck happened. The kind of season in which the silver lining is that it’s not worse than someone worse than you. Here are five drivers whose seasons have been a far cry from where their hopes stood in February.

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Diamonds In the Rough: Five Drivers Having a Great 2009, Not That You’ve Seen It On TV

NASCAR broadcasts these days are, as many fans complain, not exactly equitable in how they dole out airtime to drivers. While one guy (you fill in the name) will be on TV throughout the broadcast no matter where he is running, another (fill in that guy too) might be having a great run-and you hardly see him. At the end of the race, when they show the results, you look and think, ‘I had no idea.’ Sometimes it seems as though that scenario is a microcosm for NASCAR as a whole. Some guys make the news because they are running well-while others are exceeding expectations and you hardly hear a word about it. A few actually get more press for running bad than some of the frontrunners. There are a few drivers who have very quietly put together decent seasons without fanfare. They all might not make the Chase, but all things considered, are having much better seasons than the press (or lack thereof) suggest. Check out these five hidden gems, who are quietly putting together a better season than some who make the news (but shall remain nameless).

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Jamie McMurray At A Crossroads With Miles To Go

The year is 2002, and there is buzz in the then Busch Series garage and among fans about a 26-year-old driver seemingly in the fast lane to the top. By season’s end, he looks to be proving to all takers that he’s worthy of the talk--he’ll end up with a pair of wins, and will finish in the top 10 over 40% of the time. He’ll also finish sixth in points and win in a then-Winston Cup race as well, in only his second start as a fill in for the injured Sterling Marlin. In fact, his first Cup win will come before his first Busch Series win. He is a sponsor’s dream, a genuinely likeable young man with a floppy bowl haircut and an easy smile. Everyone likes him because of his outgoing personality. There seems to be no limit to where this young driver will go, and after he wins Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors and finishes 13th in points in the Cup series in 2003, now driving for a brand-new Cup team with a new and extravagant owner in Chip Ganassi while winning two more Busch Series races on a limited schedule, his future seems written in stone.

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Before My Brain Melts… Thoughts For These Summer Nights

I need to admit I’ve been at least sort of wrong on one point for the last few years. Largely in part because of prior accomplishments, I have had Tony Stewart pegged as the best driver on the Cup Circuit over the past decade. And, well, I took a second look after Indy; and at this point, Johnson is now clearly the best, despite the fact that he didn’t even join the Cup tour until 2002. Statistics don’t lie, and Johnson’s are better than Stewart’s over the course of the decade. The equipment is equal, the two drivers had the best crew chiefs on pit road -- and Johnson’s numbers are simply better. I stand corrected.

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It’s About Dreams: Lessons From A Short Track

With the Sprint Cup Series off and the Nationwide Series at Gateway for a late Saturday Night Special, a trip to the local track was in order. Now my local short track is one of the most famous in the land-Hickory Motor Speedway, in Hickory, North Carolina, a track where the winners’ list reads like a who’s who of NASCAR’s best and brightest. But these days, Hickory is all short track, and it’s a great place to spend a sultry Southern Saturday night. So I grabbed the cooler, a lawn chair and a few friends, and off we went.

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