Zipadelli and Stewart together again, Ferrari ready to win, New NASCAR Speedway Rules

 

Greg Zipadelli, Tony Stewart’s former crew chief joins Stewart-Haas Racing, Ferrari and McLaren state they are ready to unseat the dominant Red Bull Formula One Team and NASCAR imposes further restrictions to stop the tandem drafts at Super Speedways.

Despite Great Competition, NASCAR Must Still Deal With An Ongoing Problem

 Menard

Paul Menard's victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after which he and his team got to "kiss the bricks," was one of the unexpected moments of 2011 that led it to become one of the most competitive, and historical, seasons in NASCAR's history. Menard was one of five first-time winners in the past season.

The sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing faces a familiar problem in 2012, one that has bedeviled it for the last three years.

However, that problem is certainly not the quality of its competition. For once NASCAR didn’t have to come up with obscure facts and figures to tout itself as the most competitive form of motorsports in this country – which, incidentally, is a claim it has made repeatedly over the years.

In 2011, there can be little argument that it was, indeed. And no one has to search high and low for statistics to prove it.

Now, I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. Not only was the past season highly competitive, it was also, in many ways, historical.

All it takes to understand that is a quick look at what happened and who made it happen.

There were 18 different winners in Cup racing, which matched those in 2002 and fell just one short of the record of 19 set in 2001.

Five of those winners won for the first time in their careers, and, to make this unprecedented, four of those winners were victorious in four of the circuit’s most prestigious races at three of its most prominent speedways.

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400.

Not one of these drivers was considered a victory candidate in any of these races – if, indeed, in any other.

That these relatively unheralded drivers won as they did for the first time – and all in one season – has never been done before in NASCAR.

And Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner when he was victorious on the road course at Watkins Glen.

It was routinely believed that if Australian Ambrose won in NASCAR it would be on a road course. That he did so was no surprise.

That may be, but judging from response, his victory enhanced NASCAR’s international appeal – at least in one part of the world. Ambrose is a hero in his native country.

The battle for the championship was like no other in NASCAR’s history.

It came down to a two-man war between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that wasn’t settled until after the final race of the season at Homestead.

Stewart won that race while Edwards finished second, yet another in a series of Chase races in which the two finished within a single position of each other.

The result was the first tie in points ever in NASCAR. Each had 2,403 points.

Stewart won with the tiebreaker – the most wins in a season. He had five, Edwards one.

But the championship drama goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply because Stewart won it in historically close fashion, it was also how he did so.

He started the 10-race Chase ninth in points without a single victory to his credit.

But once the “playoff” began Stewart surged like a tsunami. He won five races, rose quickly to No. 1 in points and, with four wins under his belt, was second when Homestead began, just three points in arrears to a remarkably consistent Edwards.

That set up the dramatic finish.

Stewart has to receive credit for one of the most impressive, come-from-behind runs for a title in NASCAR’s history.

Any decent statistician could put up some other numbers that would support the excellent competitiveness of the 2011 season – laps lead, most lead changes, cars running at the finish and such.

But I don’t believe they are needed. What has been presented here – and, I admit, earlier – should offer solid proof that NASCAR is in no way suffering when it comes to the quality of its competition.

Fact is, it’s thriving.

But, when it comes to being a business and not a sport, NASCAR and its teams are not thriving.

In 2008 this country, and the world, plunged into an economic disaster.

Stocks plummeted, banks failed, businesses folded, homes went into foreclosure and jobs were lost a thousand fold.

Nothing escaped, not even NASCAR. At the end of the 2008 season team members were laid off in droves. Other organizations folded. Sponsors, who suffered a loss of profits, pulled the plug on their NASCAR participation.

Sponsorship suddenly became a gift, not a given. Teams used to single-entity deals that brought in $20 million or more began to beg for limited schedule deals at reduced prices.

For those teams fortunate enough to have it, financial backing was acquired through multiple companies providing full support for 10-12 races here, 4-6 there and maybe even one or two.

And I think it is obvious that speedways suffered as well. Where they once were able to sell tickets with little difficulty, they now had to use creative public relations and marketing strategies to lure cash-strapped fans to come to their races.

It wasn’t easy. Empty grandstand seats prevailed.

I was one of many who said then that the economy was NASCAR’s biggest challenge. It remains so.

The economic malaise has not gone away. It hasn’t for the country and it hasn’t for NASCAR.

We already know of two teams that have ceased operations, both of them part of high-profile operations. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing no longer have four teams, they have three. A lack of sponsorship has caused that.

And the Roush team that features past champion driver Matt Kenseth is still searching for financial backing – as are several other organizations at one level or another.

Red Bull Racing, and its two-car operation, folded. I’ll be honest. The economy might have had something to do with that but I suspect politics might have played a larger role.

Regardless, after 2011, think of the number of racing jobs that have been lost – again.

At present NASCAR does not have as many well-funded, full-time teams now as it did at the start of 2011.

Its speedways still have to find the means to get folks to part with their dollars. After all, the joblessness rate is still high, companies continue layoffs or job elimination (including among the motorsports media), real estate values remain low and gasoline prices are volatile, among many other things.

The problems NASCAR faced after 2008 are still its major concerns as 2012 approaches.

But it is clear that, at least for one season, competition is at an all-time high. That is something that can potentially lures fans, encourage needed media attention and honestly establish NASCAR as something it has always claimed to be – the best in this country.

If what we saw in 2011 is matched, or approached, by what happens in 2012, that can only be good for NASCAR and its continuing challenge to sell itself, and its teams, to the public and corporate America amid a still struggling economy.

Busch’s Talent Should Land Him A Ride, But Will It Be Enough?

Busch

Kurt Busch has had a successful NASCAR career but it has also been highlighted by ill behavior and displays of anger. His tenure with Penske Racing has come to an end and the question now is, will his talent be enough to land him a competitive ride, or will his reputation harm his future?

Much has been said and written about Kurt Busch’s future, which, competitively, has been rumored to be with Richard Petty Motorsports or perhaps elsewhere.

It appears this is a pivotal career point for Busch. He has clearly displayed his talent, but, at the same time, he has shown a penchant for anger and boorish behavior.

So it appears the question is, will his talent override his flaws and gain him yet another opportunity with a quality team, or will his somewhat unsavory reputation as an individual toss him to a lower level?

Right now, your guess is as good as mine.

But I offer some background and thoughts:

When it comes to skill behind the wheel, Busch is a terrific stock car driver.

I don’t see how that can be argued. He started racing when he was 14 years old and he’s been winning ever since.

His list of accomplishments as a youngster is impressive, to say the least. To name a few, he won the Nevada State Dwarf Car championship in 1995, the Hobby Stock Car title at Las Vegas Speedway Park in 1996, and, after earning seven wins in two years on the circuit, he became the youngest driver to win NASCAR Southwest Series championship. He was just 21 years old.

He was the runnerup for the 2000 NASCAR Camping World Truck championship, in which he won four races and was named the rookie of the year.

It was also in 2000 that Busch got his break in Sprint Cup competition, entering seven races for team owner Jack Roush, a man known for his ability to cultivate young talent.

It didn’t take long for Busch to blossom. In 2002, his third season with Roush, the Las Vegas native won four races. He would win 10 more with Roush over the next four seasons.

His crowning achievement came in 2004 – only his fourth full season at NASCAR’s highest level – when he won the Sprint Cup championship.

By this time we had all seen the dark side of Busch’s personality, revealed by multiple physical and verbal confrontations with other drivers, the media and others – and, at times, a very condescending attitude toward those around him.

I think most of us felt that along with his abundance of talent Busch also had a short fuse.

So what? Many of the greatest drivers in NASCAR’s history have been men who have been known to respond harshly to perceived injustice or imperfection.

However it was almost constant with Busch, at least it seemed that way to some, and it came to a head just one year after his championship.

In a well-chronicled incident in Phoenix, Busch, stopped by deputies in Maricopa County near the track for traffic violations, engaged in a pugilistic exchange of words and some antagonistic name-calling

All of which was duly and widely reported and proved to be the last straw for the Roush organization.

Busch was not entered in the final two races of the season. Essentially, he was dismissed.

“We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists,” said Roush President Geoff Smith.

It didn’t take long for Busch to hook up with another high-level team as he joined Penske Racing in 2006.

The six years he has spent with Penske have not been as productive as those with Roush. Still, Busch has won in each season.

This year, even though he won twice, it appeared Busch was simply unsatisfied with the team’s performance.

If we consider his repeated and widely-reported tirades over the radio, some laced with profanity and others harshly critical of team members, that would certainly seem to be the case.

Often Busch expressed his dissatisfaction in the harshest, even crudest, means possible.

It all came to a head with his profane tirade toward television pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch not long after Busch had fallen out of the Homestead race early.

It was captured on YouTube, which is all it took for the word to see everything.

Penske and Busch thus parted by “mutual agreement.”

Busch turned to the media to make his case. He admitted he had done things wrong, as far as his conduct, and was receiving professional help.

He also said he still had a lot to offer any team.

He’s right.

But will it be enough?

The Petty team’s interest in him as a replacement for A.J. Allmendinger (who had his best season in 2011) is evident.

It wants to keep its sponsor, Best Buy, which it landed just before the 2011 campaign began. Makes sense, given that in these difficult economic times financial backing is difficult to find.

RPM no doubt thinks that it can increase its chances to keep its supporter by offering up a winning, championship driver who is assured a start in every Sprint Cup race in 2012.

That may well be true.

But then, how does the team – and the sponsor – judge Busch the man and his past?

I know full well that RPM is not the family-run operation out of Level Cross, N.C., it once was. It is now a much different corporate entity that does not necessarily reflect the values of what was once Petty Enterprises.

There was a time when the name Petty, so very conscious of the its image and that of its long-standing, legendary driver, did all it could not be associated with anything negative – including a controversial personality, professional confrontations or even a beer sponsorship.

I seriously doubt Busch would ever be considered for employment.

But that was then. This is now.

And, curiously, wonder what the Roush organization, which works in tandem with RPM in technology, would think of Busch in the mix?

In the end the matter is simple, really.

Busch’s talent and record are going to land him a ride – be it with RPM or elsewhere. I really don’t think there is much doubt about that.

But the question is this: Will he become a changed man? Will he be the cooperative, open and even charming man he can be and whom we’ve seen often in the past?

If he does, his future would seem assured.

If not, what happens next, whatever it might be, could be his very last chance.

 

If Evidence Is Anything, Edwards Earns Title Sooner Than Later

Edwards

Carl Edwards did all he could to win his first career Cup championship in 2011. He was the points leader for most of the Chase, but in the last race of the year he gave way to Tony Stewart, who won five times in the last 10 races. Edwards has learned from the experience and should again be a title contender.

If most of the media picked up on the vibes Carl Edwards emitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, which I think they did, they got the sense that the Roush Fenway Racing driver enjoyed himself.

But he also clearly felt the disappointment of losing the Sprint Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Shoot, do you really have to be told that? NASCAR drivers are intense competitors who love to win and hate to lose.

To have a championship within grasp only to see it snatched away at the last moment has to be agonizingly frustrating.

Throughout NASCAR’s history there have been many types of competitors, ranging from those who raced as an expensive hobby, to those who won multiple championships and became legends.

There have also been some who have come very close to winning a championship, but never did so throughout their careers.

I don’t think Edwards is going to be one of them.

First, if experience in championship tussles means anything, Edwards has lots of it. He finished third in 2005, second in 2008 and fourth in 2010.

Of course, there followed the 2011 season. Edwards was the point leader going into the final race at Homestead, where he finished second.

Unfortunately, rival Tony Stewart won the race to forced a tie in points with Edwards at 2,403.

Stewart became champ on the tiebreaker, which was the most seasonal wins. Stewart had five – all in the Chase – and Edwards had only one. That proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Second, Edwards has said that, rather than succumb to disappointment and continually bemoan his fate, he is going to learn from the experience and do just a bit better in 2012.

Edwards knows, and has told us more than once, that his team was clearly championship caliber in 2011. At no time during the Chase did he, or it, make a mistake too large to overcome.

Nor did either give in to Stewart and his Stewart-Haas team. As the season came to an end, Edwards and Stewart fought for every point they earned in the Chase. One never attained a significant gain over the other.

Edwards lost the title by, perhaps, the only way he could have: because of a scintillating, come-from-behind performance in the Chase by Stewart.

Edwards looks at racing as his career, during which he wants to get better with each passing season. Therefore, he looks at 2011 as a stepping stone, something from which he has learned valuable lessons.

He vows he will not let emotions rule performance. If he slips competitively in 2012 it won’t be because “We got messed up in the head over not winning the championship.”

Let’s add proper attitude to experience as another ingredient for a championship.

Edwards has both.

Which is why I think that sooner or later – most likely sooner – he’s going to earn one.

As an aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how hard Edwards presses for victories next year. Something else I suspect he learned in 2011 is that the more he wins, the better his chances will be to emerge a champion if it all goes down to the wire.

If the outcome was disappointing, nevertheless Edwards’ championship run was the high-water mark for the Roush organization in 2011.

Edwards and his team took the lead in the four-car organization. Those that followed had seasons rated very good to unexpectedly unproductive.

Matt Kenseth was the only other Roush driver to join Edwards in the Chase. After the reseeding, he was fourth in points with two wins, one position ahead of Edwards.

Kenseth had five top-five finishes in the Chase, including a victory at Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth (left) put up some good numbers for Roush Fenway Racing and joined Edwards as the only team drivers to make the Chase. Greg Biffle did not have the type of season expected of him and wasn't eligible for the Chase. He was 15th in points when the 10-race "playoff" began.

He rose as high as second in points following Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, but finishes of 31st at Martinsville and 34th at Phoenix greased the path for his fourth-place standing at season’s end.

Kenseth, the 2004 champ, can certainly claim another title for Roush. His team can, and does, win races. However, perhaps a little more consistency would seal the deal.

Greg Biffle never figured in the Chase. With no wins, only one top-five finish and seven among the top 10, when the Chase began he was 15th in points and on the outside looking in.

I’m pretty sure Biffle – and Roush – are not pleased with all of that and I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that something needs to be done at Biffle’s team. I strongly suspect that is something the organization already knows.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, David Ragan won his first career a long way toward fulfilling the potential Jack Roush saw in him.

Ragan flirted with making the Chase, hoping that the victory would be enough to land him in one of the final two slots in the 12-car field.

It didn’t work out that way and Ragan finished 19th in points.

It seems all but certain he won’t be with Roush next year. The UPS sponsorship his team enjoyed has moved on and with no new financial backing on the horizon, Roush has released Ragan to search for work elsewhere (Penske?).

It appears Roush will be a three-car team next year – and it still needs to locate sponsorship for Kenseth’s team.

While Roush may be one of several organizations downsizing – or closing – because of the economic situation, I don’t think anyone should be surprised if it puts, at the very least, one car into the Chase in 2012.

Nor should we be surprised if that car is driven by Carl Edwards.

2011 Had Its ‘Top Moments,’ But History Was Also Made

 

Stewart

Tony Stewart's five victories in the Chase and his battle with Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship were considered two of the most memorable moments of the 2011 season. The championship was unprecedented as Stewart and Edwards tied in points, but Stewart won because he had more wins.

Already multiple presentations on the “top moments” of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season have been published or broadcast and, quite frankly, I’m inclined to agree with most of them.

I certainly agree with many others that Jeff Gordon’s 85th career victory at Atlanta was memorable. Gordon, the four-time champion, won three times in 2011 and is now in sole possession of third place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.

I won’t argue with those who listed Danica Patrick’s achievement as one of the season’s best moments. Patrick finished fourth at Las Vegas in March to set the record as not only the highest finish recorded by a female driver in Nationwide Series competition, but also as tops among all females in any NASCAR national series event.

Patrick broke the long-standing mark of fifth place set in 1949 by Sara Christian in Heidelberg, Pa.

As you know, many more memorable achievements have been mentioned and I daresay all of them deserve a place on anyone’s list.

But I think I’ll go a little further. In 2011, the accomplishments of many were more than “top moments.”

Because of who they are, what they achieved and where they achieved it, all made the 2011 season unique – and even historical.

Frankly, some things happened this past season that have never happened before in NASCAR’s history.

Patrick’s accomplishment is one of them.

But there are many more. And that’s part of the reason 2011 was a unique season.

Consider Tony Stewart. That he won five races in the Chase – his only five wins of the season, by the way – to come from ninth in points to a championship in just 10 races is worthy, by itself, as a “top moment.”

But what makes it more compelling, and history making, is that Stewart won a championship battle that was unlike any other in NASCAR’s existence.

At the end of the season’s final race at Homestead Stewart and rival Carl Edwards were tied for No. 1 in points at 2,403 apiece.

That was a first in NASCAR and it meant the champ would be crowed via the tiebreaker: the driver with the most wins. That hadn’t happened before, either.

That was Stewart with five – all of them, ironically, earned in the Chase. Edwards had only one victory for the season.

The unprecedented closeness of the championship fight was even more impressive, and unique, by its very nature.

Stewart and Edwards raged mortal combat. Unlike how it has been many times in the past, neither made a mistake to give the title to the other.

They stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out. They finished within one position of each other in three of the last four races – and never out of the top 10.

It was truly a scrap for a championship and not one decided by a twist of fate.

Smith

Regan Smith (left) and Trevor Bayne were two of the four first-time winners in 2011. The others were David Ragan and Paul Menard. These drivers not only won for the first time, they won four of NASCAR's most prestigious and popular races.

Yes, Stewart’s five victories are memorable. But the very character of the 2011 championship was unlike any other in NASCAR.

First-time winners always carve a niche for themselves in any season. So it was in 2011, but with a couple of notable exceptions.

Perhaps at no other time in NASCAR were there so many first-time winners. But what makes it all so much more unique is not that they won, but where they won.
I daresay few ever heard of Trevor Bayne, the young driver under contract with Jack Roush who was lent to the Wood Brothers for selected Cup races in 2011.

At age 20 years and one day, Bayne led the final six laps to win the Daytona 500 in only his second Cup start. It was the fourth 500 victory for the Woods team and the 600th for Ford.

Bayne isn’t the first surprise Daytona winner. But, unlike so often in the past, he didn’t win because circumstances turned in his favor. He won because he was competitive and raced like a veteran.

At Furniture Row Racing, Regan Smith was thought of as one of those guys competing with a second-tier team who was most likely to run at the rear of any race.

But, as improbable as it was, Smith, who had no wins, top-fives or top-10s in 104 starts, won the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington.

He led the final 11 laps and held off Edwards by 0.198-second to win.

Many considered Paul Menard as the weakest link in the four-car chain of teams at Richard Childress Racing. Feel free to disagree, of course.

But Menard proved, nicely, that he could win. He did so for the first time in his career in the Brickyard 500 at Indianapolis. He outgunned Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, to earn the victory.

Twenty-five-year-old David Ragan earned his way to a ride with Roush and was, essentially, “under development” for a successful Cup career.

He took a huge step in that direction when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July. Before he gained his first career victory, the best Ragan had finished was third, three times.

Five first-time winners – including Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen – would make any season memorable. But 2011 was a bit more so.

Four drivers who won – Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard – did so at three of NASCAR’s most prestigious venues and in four of its most distinguished and popular races, the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coke Zero 400 and the Brickyard 400.

I can heartily assure you that it’s never happened before in NASCAR.

It’s a first in a season I thought had more than its share of them.

Which means that while we all got the chance to see more “top moments” in NASCAR, we also had the opportunity to witness history being made.

That does not happen very often.

Kurt Busch Might Have to “Occupy” Anything He Can Get


Kurt Busch’s problems wont just go away with a new ride for another team. There aren’t any competitive seats to “Occupy”. James Finch is willing to talk, but won’t pay someone to insult him. Formula One is in full swing for Winter development and two drivers are in, Raikkonen and Grosjean and two are out, Petrov and Senna at Renault. Indycar is struggling with the new DW12 chassis in Speedway configuration and Del Worsham has left Al-Anabi to crew for Alex Dejoria.

The Two-Car Team, With Darrell And Neil, Came In 1984

After the close loss to Bobby Allison in the fight for the 1983 Winston Cup championship, few anticipated any changes at Junior Johnson & Associates.

There was little reason for them. After all, with Darrell Waltrip aboard as driver, the team had won consecutive titles, in 1981 and 1982, and had come so very close to a third in a row – which would have matched the record set by Cale Yarborough in 1976-78 when he drove for Junior.

However, not only were there mere changes, there were almost unprecedented changes.

With the participation of financial partner Warner Hodgdon, Junior re-fitted his entire organization.

It would become something that had rarely been attempted and only once had been successful in NASCAR history.

There weren’t many who believed that what Junior had done could possibly match it.

In 1984 the evidence would come soon enough.

Junior’s commentaries, and more, will return to www.motorsportsunplugged.com in January 2012.

Perhaps the most drastic changes I made at Junior Johnson & Associates came late in 1983 as we prepared for the ’84 season.

Now, I had shaken up things a bit in the past, that’s for sure. Carling Brewery actually bought my team in 1974 and we fielded a car for a Canadian rookie, Earl Ross, as well as one for Cale.

But what was to be a long-term arrangement ended after just one season and I was easily able to buy back my entire team.

Then, in 1982 for the ’83 season, I took on Warner Hodgdon, a California real estate developer, as a partner. I thought his input would be good for the team and, in fact, it was.

The first season with Hodgdon was a very good one despite the fact that, with Darrell driving, we came up short in our effort to win a third-straight championship.

We lost it by 47 points to Bobby Allison, who won the first title of his career – and, as I’ve said more than once, would have captured a whole lot sooner had he raced for me beyond the 1972 season.

But just before the 1984 season started, well, I reckon I let loose with a bombshell.

In November of 1983, I announced, with Hodgdon, that our team would switch from Pepsi sponsorship to Anheuser-Busch for 1984. I had worked with the company before with its Busch brand of beer, but this time it was going to be Budweiser.

And there was something else.

Junior Johnson & Associates would become a two-car team. Hodgdon was going to bring Neil Bonnett over from Rahmoc Enterprises to be our second driver under the Budweiser sponsorship.

We were going to be a multicar team – a rarity in NASCAR. It had happened only a few times in the past. I tired it a decade earlier and as I recall, the Pettys did it a couple of times in the early ‘70s, although not on a full schedule, with drivers Pete Hamilton and Buddy Baker.

And Carl Kiekhaefer made history with his multicar, championship team of the 1950’s.

Darrell wasn’t thrilled with the two-car concept. In fact, he didn’t like it a bit. Except for Kiekhaefer, no one had made it work.

I told Darrell that I’d make sure he wasn’t held back any by Neil’s team. And by the end of the season it was easy to see I kept my word.

The season started just about as well as it could for us. Neil won the Busch Clash at Daytona with a last-lap pass on Baker.

Darrell was masterful in the Daytona 500 but lost it when Cale and Dale Earnhardt came slinging by on the last lap.

By August, Darrell had won four races, at Bristol, Darlington, Nashville and Michigan. On the other hand, Neil hadn’t won but had

Labonte

Terry Labonte, driving for Billy Hagan, won the 1984 Winston Cup championship despite the fact he won only two races. Darrell Waltrip, who drove for Junior, won seven yet finished fifth in points. Waltrip said the points system should be changed to better reward victories - which it does today.

turned in some impressive performances.

Actually he would have won at Nashville if NASCAR hadn’t ruled in Darrell’s favor. Let me explain:

Darrell was leading on lap 418 of 420 when the yellow and white flags flew simultaneously following an accident. Neil passed Darrell and NASCAR gave him the checkered flag.

Darrell protested, saying he had been passed illegally.

Heck, I didn’t discourage him. Whatever ruling NASCAR handed down would be fine with me. My team would win either way – although I do admit I was hoping it would be Neil just for his personal satisfaction.

Two days later, however, NASCAR ruled in Darrell’s favor.

As the season moved into its closing months, Darrell was to win three more times. We ended the season with seven victories, more than twice as many as any other team.

But we didn’t win the championship. Terry Labonte, who had a very consistent season, with 17 finishes among the top five and 24 in the top 10, took the title.

But he won only two races.

As fate would have it, despite the fact that he won more races than anyone else, Darrell finished fifth in points, behind Labonte, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott and Dale. None of them won more than three times during the year.

As you might imagine, Darrell wasn’t very happy. He didn’t think a driver who won the most races should be shut out of a championship.

Heck, I agreed.

“Winning ought to award more points; bonus points,” Darrell said. “We’ve won more than anybody and we should at least be in contention for the championship. We ought to have a system that rewards running to win, not running just to finish.”

You know what? It’s pretty ironic that such a system is just what NASCAR has had for several years now.

Neil didn’t win in his first year with me, but he did have 14 top-10 finishes and wound up eighth in points.

Not a bad start for a multicar team, in my opinion.

However, it was just that – a start.

I didn’t know it at the time but a rocky road was ahead.

Past Drivers Suggest Certain Behavior Wasn’t Part Of Their Era

Dane

Lloyd Dane, a past NASCAR driver who is 86 years old and competed in the second Southern 500 at Darlington, attended a special "Legends" autograph session in Mooresville, N.C. He suggested that a driver not unlike Kurt Busch would have a tough time surviving during Dane's racing days.

For two decades now, “Stocks For Tots,” a program designed to provide toys for needy children, has been held in Mooresville, N.C.

Fans who attend the function and provide donations are afforded the opportunity to get autographs from Sprint Cup drivers, team members and other folks.

They can also get signatures from the “Legends” – drivers and other personnel who represent the past eras of NASCAR.

Among many others, this year’s attendees included Lloyd Dane, who competed in the second Southern 500 in 1951, “Tiger” Tom Pistone, Cecil “Flash” Gordon, Jim Vandiver, Dr. Don Tarr, Baxter Price and Lake Speed.

I’m not certain, but I think Speed, whose career ended in 1988, was the youngest of the group.

Over the years I have talked often with drivers from the past. They always say racing in their time was a lot different and for a lot of reasons.

Rules were primitive, as was technology. As much as a competitor turned the wheel, he also had to work on his own car. There was no real sponsorship money.

Travel was difficult – there were no, say, Hampton Inns in those days – tracks were usually unkempt with no driver amenities, crowds weren’t big and, as most said emphatically, race purses weren’t either.

Only a few men raced for a living and none of them became millionaires.

As for media coverage, it was virtually non-existent.

More than a few of NASCAR’s pioneers have said they wish they could have been able to compete when NASCAR became a national sport and flourished.

They would have had a much greater opportunity to become true celebrities and, heck, even millionaires.

Some have said today’s drivers don’t know how good they have it – and many of them act as if they don’t really appreciate it.

To a man they recognize the many differences that have evolved over the years – not just in racing but also in all of society.

They realize that modern technology – which includes cell phones, satellite television, the Internet and all that comes with it – has changed how we live.

Communication today is almost instant and what happens in racing today, good or bad, is available to all the world in a matter of minutes; sometimes seconds.

“I sure like the tracks, the money and even the competition in NASCAR today,” said one veteran. “But I ain’t sure about everything else. It’s kinda unnerving to know what you do or say could be open to everyone on some damn computer.”

No veteran driver has ever denied the truth of stock car racing’s rough-and-tumble reputation. There were fights and confrontations aplenty.

But there was also an unspoken code of conduct. In essence, it said that differences should be settled man-to-man, never through the media or in public.

As for the media itself, it was so small – and so desperately needed to help NASCAR grow – cooperation was vital.

If a driver disagreed with what was written or said about him it was his duty to confront the reporter only.

And no competitor ever dared to publicly berate a media member with a profanity-laced tirade – even if video cameras and YouTube did not exist.

Which means, several veterans said, Kurt Busch would not have lasted very long in their era.

Some knew of his history and said one big reason he wouldn’t have lasted is that his “loud mouth” and penchant for arrogance would have gotten him into serious trouble.

“He would have had the crap kicked out of him and no one in the garage area would have cared, much less NASCAR,” Dane said.

“Yeah,” responded another veteran. “Can you imagine what would happen if he gave some lip to Buck Baker, Tiny Lund or ….”

As for cussing out the media it was simply unimagined – at least if done in public.

Past drivers know full well the expanse of today’s media and how their coverage of NASCAR has swollen to a magnitude of which they could not conceive years ago.

In their era the media simply wasn’t around much. So when a reporter came calling, they cooperated willingly. They couldn’t wait to see their names in newspapers, spoken on the radio or flashed on TV.

“There were only a few star drivers in those days so for the rest of us, when we got the chance to be interviewed, we jumped at it. We gave ‘em all they wanted,” veteran driver Buddy Arrington once said.

If a driver fussed and cussed a media member where all could hear or see, others would be horrified. They needed to keep the media and attract more of them. They sure didn’t want to drive ‘em away.

What would happen to any driver who crossed that line would be the same as happened to Busch – he would be severely punished by NASCAR and fired by his team owner.

It wouldn’t be a “mutual agreement,” you understand. The driver would be fired and his future in NASCAR would be cast in doubt.

Everyone admits times have changed and that has been a good thing for NASCAR.

But many veterans feel that some of today’s drivers – certainly not all by any means – have adopted self-righteous attitudes and a sense of self-importance.

And, sometimes, that can be a bad thing for NASCAR.

As Champ, Stewart Knows Well What Is Expected Of Him

Stewart

Tony Stewart was honored for his third career championship during Champions Week in Las Vegas and its highlight, the Awards Banquet. Stewart is undoubtedly pleased with his achievement and should have no problem being the type of competitor he can be, personally, as NASCAR's top representative in 2012.

Tony Stewart is nobody’s fool.

Regardless of what some fans may think of him, Stewart knows full well that, as a NASCAR champion, he’s held to a high standard of conduct – both professional and personal.

He can’t lapse into the Stewart of old, the one, you may remember, who had a penchant for losing his temper, smart-mouthing fellow drivers and media alike and, on occasion, engage in physical confrontation.

I certainly recall the days when it was suggested he undergo anger management.

But I’ll be honest. That particular Stewart hasn’t existed for quite some time. At least I haven’t seen him.

Oh, I know he can get ornery and hostile from time to time, but, with rare exceptions over the years, I don’t think there has been a single competitor who hasn’t displayed such traits.

Truth be known I’m pretty sure you and I have once and a while.

My point is that today’s Stewart has already shown he can be a charming and witty guy.

For example, he fueled the humor at the NASCART Awards Banquet in Las Vegas when he convinced five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to go to the head table when he was introduced.

When done, Johnson was puzzled and the audience entertained. Good stuff.

Stewart said he had other shticks planned, including an Elvis suit, but NASCAR thought that might go a little bit far in a formal ceremony.

Stewart could have simply been formal and perfunctory, going through the motions as he was recognized as that champ.

Instead, he was genuine. And I think he’s likely to remain that way throughout his 2012 reign. He knows what he represents.

He’s been like this before. When he won the 2005 championship, his second, I was fortunate enough to be part of the television show “NASCAR Victory Lane.”

We were conducting a remote interview with a happy but tired Stewart from Homestead, where he clinched the championship.

Stewart had been asked a plethora of questions, several of which he had heard repeatedly, and when it was my turn I couldn’t think of something different to ask him.

So I inquired about what he was going to do during the off-season. Was he going to take a cruise, maybe?

I admit it – it was dumb, stupid and inane.

“Uh, I think I’m going to be too busy for anything like that,” Stewart deadpanned.

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “I had to ask.”

“No, no,” he responded. “I understand what you meant.”

And then he went through a litany of his planned activities and duties and provided the viewers with some fresh information.

When the show was over one of my colleagues commented that here was a time Stewart would have considered me a dolt – and said so.

“Reckon winning a championship kinda changes a guy, doesn’t it?” he added.

Yes, and while this third title has, again, acted as a positive catalyst for Stewart the man, I’m not sure he really needed it.

He was riding high long before he got to Las Vegas.

Before the Chase began Stewart was nowhere close to a pleased, happy-go-lucky fellow – and no wonder.

When the “playoff” began he hadn’t won a race and was a championship contender only because he managed to hold on to ninth place in the point standings.

He admitted his team didn’t deserve to be part of the Chase. The Stewart-Haas organization was “bumbling and stumbling.”

He wasn’t hostile but he wasn’t happy. He clearly did not like the direction his team had taken.

Then Stewart and his team did what champions do. They came roaring back, rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.

Stewart won four races in the Chase to close within three points of Carl Edwards when the Homestead finale came around.

In that race he overcame adversity, went three- and four-wide to make passes and won for the fifth time, – that’s half the races in the Chase – with Edwards second. They were tied in points at 2,403, but Stewart claimed the title because he had more victories.

And think of it – he earned every one of them in the Chase, something he for which he once declared he and his team were unsuitable.

To capture a title in such a manner, and help create NASCAR history, has to make any competitor feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

There’s something else; something I think may be just as satisfying to Stewart, perhaps more so, than a title alone.

He did it as the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

While Kulwicki’s accomplishment will always have its place in NASCAR lore, it came during a different era.

It came just before NASCAR’s boom, when teams flourished and multiplied. Single organizations fielded not one, but two, three, four or five cars and would have had more had not NASCAR drawn the line.

When Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing in the risk to own a team, he, too, opted for the multicar format. Ryan Newman was hired to be his teammate.

But, given the established powerhouses he was up against, a championship seemed unlikely.

It was achieved in just the third year of Stewart-Haas’ existence.

Yes, I know the team got tremendous technical support from Hendrick Motorsports. However, getting such assistance is one thing. How well it is used is quite another.

That he won a historical championship in the manner he did, and as an owner to boot, seems more than enough to make Stewart a satisfied, content, happy and laid-back man.

I think he can remain so for all of his 2012 reign. He certainly knows that to do so will serve NASCAR – and more important, Stewart himself – very well.

If you ask me, I don’t think he’ll find it difficult. I think he’s had a lot of practice over the past few years.

It Could’ve Been Better For Kyle Busch But He Offers No Excuses Or Regrets

 Ky.-Busch

Kyle Busch is presented the Goodyear Gatorback Award for leading the most laps in each race more than any other driver in 2011. Unfortunately, Busch, ranked No. 12 in the final standings, won't be there when NASCAR honors champion Tony Stewart on Friday.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, will not be on the stage tonight when NASCAR stages its annual ceremony to honor 2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.

Only the drivers who finished among the top 10 in the final point standings will be on hand to receive recognition – and the monetary awards that come with it.

Kyle wound up 12th in points; his older brother 11th.

It seems a shame the two will not be at the festivities conducted at the Wynn Hotel on Vegas’ celebrated Strip. After all, the town called ‘Sin City’ is their home.

Now, it would come as no surprise if both of them decided to ignore the event, given they are intense competitors and seemingly wouldn’t care much to see glory heaped on others.

But as far as Kyle is concerned, that won’t be so.

“Yeah, I’m going to watch,” the younger Busch said. “To have Champions Week on home turf is nice.

It seems there’s a lot positive about it.

“Having it in Vegas, it seems there is a lot more areas for drivers to play, if you will, and spend some good times, whether they make money or lose money.

“We like it here, not just Kurt and I, but I think most of the guys think it’s a good place for it.”

It was widely anticipated that Kyle would indeed be a part of the celebration and, perhaps, even the driver honored as the 2011 champion.

He was No. 1 in the point standings when the 10-race Chase began after the 26th race of the year at Richmond. He had already won four races, strengthening his reputation as the driver whose ability to win on NASCAR’s top three national tours – which includes Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – is unparalleled.

But what has plagued him and his Joe Gibbs Racing team in the past reared its ugly head again. Busch’s performances in the last 10 races of the season were, by his standards, sub-par.

“All in all, there were certainly some highs and lows during the year,” Busch said. “And not having the right final 10 races hit us again.

“It seems like we just can’t figure out the Chase thing. But, it was what it was, and we’ll move on to 2012.”

“It was what it was” included an incident that effectively removed all hopes the younger Busch had of winning a title – and, for that matter, finishing among the top 10.

At Texas Motor Speedway, site of the eighth of 10 Chase races, Busch planned to run in three events – in truck, Nationwide and Cup.

In the truck race an angered Busch deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday. The response from NASCAR was harsh.

He was not permitted to drive in either remaining event in Nationwide or Cup.

Naturally, his absence in the Cup event cost him an unrecoverable amount of valuable points and, obviously, removed him from championship contention. He fell to the rear of the point standings.

Busch did apologize for his actions at Texas. Beyond that, logic dictates that one of his regrets was they ultimately took him off the stage in Vegas when it could have been otherwise.

But when asked if he had a singular regret; any one thing he wish had happened or he had done differently, Busch was candid, direct and honest with his answer:

“Nope, nope, nope.”

Maybe he won’t be part of the ultimate celebration, but Busch got to enjoy time in Champions Week as one of the honorees at the annual National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Award luncheon, which incorporates the presentation of all the season’s contingency awards, given to the drivers who have earned them.

One of the awards is the Goodyear Gatorback Fastest Lap Award, given to the driver who, over the season, most often established the fastest lap in each race.

The younger Busch was the winner and got his share of the more than $1 million in contingency loot.

“Yeah, the Goodyear Gatorback Award was pretty cool,” he said. “I didn’t know that we had won anything so I was kinda surprised when I had to go up there and accept it.

“I was trying to think of something to say. But in the end, to come out here and be a part of NASCAR’s Champions Week is fun. We’ve had a great time.”

Busch might have an even greater time when Champions Week rolls around at the end of the 2012 season.

There are more than a few who feel that it’s likely to happen if, somehow, he manages to keep his temper in check.

But what is certainly needed is for he and his team to keep the high level of performance they have clearly displayed over the first 26 races of each season intact over the final 10.

Busch apparently agreed when asked to grade his team for 2011.

“It’s hard to grade on your own,” he said, “because we always grade low because we feel, no matter how we did, that we did not meet our expectations

“But I’d say our No. 18 team, with all the accomplishments we’ve had this year, certainly through the first 26 races, we were an ‘A’ or an ‘A-plus.’

“Over the last 10 races, we were a ‘D.’

“You just have to keep working at it. You have to get better as a team and make the circumstances better.”

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