Wasn’t it good to see the cars back on the high banks of Daytona this past weekend? The NASCAR off-season might be the shortest in all of professional sport, but it sure feels like a long cold time in the frigid weeks of a Northeast winter without the throaty roar of stock car engines each weekend. So, as we head inexorably towards Sunday’s Great American Race, and before I get too caught up in the day-by-day minutiae of the soap opera that is NASCAR, here are my 12 wishes for the 2012 season.
I was going to write a totally different column this week. I’d planned to do an end of year awards piece, but after Sunday’s Herculean tussle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, it just doesn’t seem right.
To be honest, given this will be my final weekly column of my fourth full year writing for this great site (unashamed bias there), I’d written quite a bit of the column already. Here are, for the record, some of my categories…
After ten long months, 35 grueling races and 10,383 laps run, we’re left with just 400 miles (267 laps) to decide if Tony Stewart will win a third Cup crown in nine years, or if Carl Edwards will win a first ever title after eight years of trying. We’ll find out soon enough this weekend; but after the checkered flag flies at Homestead, whoever wins doesn’t deter us from running slap bang into the racing free months of deep winter. So, I figured in one of my final columns of the year, I’d take a quick peek at twelve things that are in store for us NASCAR aficionados in 2012…
So let me get this straight. One Cup driver (Tony Stewart) has won half the races in the Chase – four of the eight run so far – and he’s still not in the points lead? Yes, I hear you; he had one poor finish (an out-to-lunch 25th-place effort at Dover) plus another ho-hum 15th-place run at Kansas. However, Smoke’s other two finishes were more than respectable: an eighth-place run at Charlotte and a seventh-place effort on the high banks of “two-car tango” Talladega. Put another way, Tony has an average finish of 7.4 in the Chase thus far; that’s not exactly chopped liver. And yet those numbers — those four victories, or 50% of the Chase races run if you’re mathematically inclined — are still not good enough for first place with two races to go. How does that work, exactly?
Once again, the venerable old paperclip of a track nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains gave us an absolute gem of a race. After the fiasco that plate racing has become last weekend at Talladega, it was just great to get back to the true roots of the sport and see how racing should be – short track style. It just doesn’t go out of fashion, gentle readers! Now, just three races remain before we crown our first new champion since what seems like the 1970s and then, it’s the interminable, frigid winter break before engines rev up once again at the start of Speedweeks in February.
But while Carl Edwards and Stewart fight for that title, Martinsville’s mayhem was a reminder that for many, the “frigid winter” can’t come soon enough. So with the 2011 season in the final stages, here are six drivers who are probably already looking forward to getting back on the track next year…
Short of moving the Southern 500 to Fontana, there’s perhaps been nothing more maligned during Brian France’s reign at the top of stock car racing than the Chase.
Back in 2004, when that faithful move was made to put the Southern 500 on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the intent was clear; a more modern facility in a larger TV market would result in bigger money for all involved. And the result? One of NASCAR’s crown jewels died, Fontana found itself back to one Cup race within seven seasons, and the Auto Club Speedway had to cut its race length down to 400 miles as the few fans that actually showed up to the track screamed “Mercy” at the top of their lungs.
I came to Las Vegas to see a race: an open-wheel showcase that was the conclusion of the 2011 IndyCar season. It was set to be a fitting finale, one that was supposed to be about an epic battle between two protagonists – three-time and defending series champion Dario Franchitti versus the Australian contender Will Power, seeking his first ever IndyCar championship. Add in the “wild card,” a possible $5 million bonus offered to Dan Wheldon for winning that day and what was likely to be a glorious celebration seemed poised to unfold. It was the culmination of what had, until that point, been a phenomenal week for the sport of IndyCar racing here in Sin City.
Instead, what I witnessed was racing’s ultimate sin, a terrible tragedy through which there are no words to truly relate just how awful things were. Fate’s cruel hand dealt us the untimely passing of Wheldon, just 33 years of age, in a horrific, fiery 15-car wreck just 12 laps into the scheduled 150-lap distance.
A friend of mine attended the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway this past Sunday. For the majority of the race, she listened to Carl Edwards’ radio chatter as he struggled his way with a real pig of a car to what was ultimately an excellent, and completely unexpected fifth-place finish. What impressed my friend was the upbeat and calm nature of the communications between head wrench Bob Osborne and his eight-year, 258-race veteran driver; how Edwards and team never once gave up despite a car that was very much out to lunch for most of the 400-mile race.
This Friday afternoon, NASCAR’s consummate pitchman and ultimate shill Michael Waltrip will address the press corps to make the announcement that Clint Bowyer will be joining Michael Waltrip Racing – expanding the team from two to three drivers for the 2012 Sprint Cup season and beyond.
Waltrip will smile a lot, crack some lame quips and generally pump up the assembled crowd as to why this move is a great one for his team, which he began almost a decade ago but only went full-time with in 2007 thanks to factory support from then-newbie manufacturer Toyota.
For much of the season, the championship discussion has centered around, “Who can beat Jimmie Johnson…can anyone?” And it’s absolutely right and proper to show deference to the man and team who have eviscerated the competition come Chase time this last half decade. Even with this rough patch, two races in all the debate and argument begins and ends with the Lowe’s Chevy and the implacable Johnson. The rest, until they prove otherwise, are mere pretenders who simply believe they are contenders.