For NASCAR, Roots Take Hold In Vegas After Years Of Growth In NYC

Stewart-Team

Tony Stewart and the entire Stewart-Haas team will celebrate Stewart's third career Sprint Cup championship at the annual NASCAR Champion's Week. The festivities will be held in Las Vegas for a third year after being conducted in New York for nearly three decades.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – NASCAR’s Champions Week has been held in Vegas for three years now and it appears it has established roots in Sin City.

The event was pretty much an understated one when it first came to the Nevada desert, largely because it was the inaugural effort and glittery Vegas is used to big-time stuff, celebrities and all.

But in a short space of time, NASCAR and the city have found the means to expand stock car racing’s presence by creating more events and gatherings that lure both the media and, hopefully, the fans.

I’m guessing that not everyone is satisfied. Without casting a stone at Las Vegas, many retain the opinion that NASCAR was bettered served during the two decades its Awards Ceremony was held in New York.

Manhattan is the epicenter of American corporations. It is the world’s media giant. What happens in New York often affects the pulse of national politics and economics.

There was a time when NASCAR believed it belonged there, amid the energy and hub-bub and away from sleepy Daytona Beach, where the banquet – a chicken and peas affair – was held during Speedweeks. It went largely ignored by fans and media alike.

The only time old buddy Tom Higgins and I attended was in 1980, when Dale Earnhardt was honored as the Winston Cup champion. We figured that, as his friends, if we didn’t go he would never forgive us.

A sign of how just humble NASCAR’s awards ceremony was 31 years ago, other than the Winston Cup trophy, presentations made to Earnhardt were a silver belt buckle and an outfit from Wrangler, his sponsor.

Over the years that followed in the Big Apple, NASCAR’s champions received everything from whopping big checks to solid gold car models, diamond rings and mink coats – just to name a few goodies.

But when NASCAR first arrived in Gotham, it was such small potatoes that few knew about it and even fewer cared.

Yes, it came to the Waldorf-Astoria. But rather than occupy the historic and impressive Grand Ballroom – which would be its venue later – 1981 Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip and team owner Junior Johnson were honored in the Starlight Roof.

Make no mistake; the “roof” is a handsome facility. But when it comes to size I daresay some hotels in Vegas have men’s rooms that may be as large.

NASCAR’s first appearance in New York was, shall we say, basic. It was not a formal, black-tie dinner. Suits were adequate. There was no entertainment – celebrities such as Harry Connick Jr., would come later. There was no champion’s ball featuring a well-known rock group. Major sponsors and the auto manufacturers did not offer pre- and post-banquet receptions.

Invitations – none for wives – were as limited as the seating.

In New York in 1981 NASCAR was not on any high level of cultural importance.

And certainly, when it came to culture, most of us who attended the inaugural event were far removed from, oh, say, the normal Waldorf guest. We were considered more suited for a Super 8.

Think of it. Here’s a bunch of rednecks from a redneck sport, conducted mostly below the Mason-Dixon Line, coming to a city choked with affluence and all that comes with it.

Some may have thought: “Why, by golly, some of ‘em are going to see a skyscraper for the first time.”

No, in actuality, it wasn’t as bad as all that. But a lot of us suspected that is exactly how we would be perceived and we decided to milk it for all it was worth.

We’d stand on a street corner, looking at the sky with out mouths agape. When one of us spotted someone eyeing us curiously, he would say:

“Reckon that building would hold a mess o’ corn!”

We’d go into one of the posh Waldorf restaurants for breakfast (knowing we’d be lucky if we got out of there for less than $25 apiece) and ask the waiter:

“Y’all got any grits?”

We would venture into a bar – believe me we had no trouble finding more than our share of them – and say to the bartender:

“Jest pour mine outta the Mason Jar and I’ll tell ya when to stop.”Vegas Logo

In time references to culture, or the lack of it, disappeared. As the NASCAR awards grew in stature, the sanctioning body’s presence in New York expanded, largely through its own efforts.

It reached the point where race cars paraded on busy streets, the champion’s many tasks included a whirlwind tour of media outlets – print and electronic, local and syndicated – and included open-public visits from Times Square to the New York Stock Exchange.

But eventually NASCAR outgrew its Grand Ballroom. And as much as it had thrown itself at the media, it had never really gained daily headlines or television presence.

It seemed, in time, that New York began to turn a cold shoulder with the opinion that perhaps NASCAR was simply not worth the effort.

That’s not hard to fathom. A parade of stock cars along Times Square during the rush hour had to anger commuters – who surely loudly complained.

Maybe the expense of being in New York during the opening of the Christmas season grew too daunting for budgets.

With open arms, Las Vegas came calling. Among other things, it declared it had facilities that could accommodate NASCAR nicely.

I daresay that where New York began to snub NASCAR, or at least the perception of it, Las Vegas offered to more than overcome that. Want the Strip for a parade? Let’s deal.

It seems the city and NASCAR have done a good job nurturing the seed planted three years ago.

There are those who will always bemoan the loss of NYC. I can understand their reasons.

But, at least to me, the difference is not about what each city offers; rather, it’s about environment.

One city is distinctly different from the other, in physical size, public amenities, cost and even ambiance. You don’t have to be told that.

However, I am convinced that whatever anyone can experience in New York can do the same in Las Vegas.

Perhaps the only difference is that, it some cases, it might be easier in one than the other.

Regardless, NASCAR is back in Vegas to celebrate its season and its champion.

Those who will attend won’t be yokels, by the way. That stereotype ended years ago.

NASCAR, Formula One, NHRA and IndyCar: 2011 and 2012


The NASCAR, Formula One, NHRA and IndyCar seasons may be over but the action is just starting. The motorsports world has never been more competitive than it is today. What happened in 2011 and what’s coming at us.

Was This Season The Best Ever? Facts, Figures And History Suggest Yes

Bayne

Young Trevor Bayne, who surprisingly won the Daytona 500, was one of five new winners in the 2011 Sprint Cup season, which, along with the intense, hotly-contested battle for the championship between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, helped make the year the best, competitively, in NASCAR's long history.

NASCAR tells us that the 2011 Sprint Cup season was the most competitive in the series’ history.

Yeah, well, we’ve heard this before. As best I recall, when each past season was completed, the sanctioning body always proclaimed that it was the “best ever” or “one of the best ever” or “filled with highly competitive races” and provided us with random numbers to back up the claims.

Which is the kind of spin NASCAR should put on each season. But then, not anyone paid much attention, especially the cynical media.

However, this season, what NASCAR proclaims should be heeded because – at least in one man’s opinion – what transpired in 2011 may indeed have shaped the most competitive and unique year in the sport’s history.

There are a lot of statistics to support that, which will be listed later. But forget the numbers for now. To me it all boils down to a couple of irrefutable facts.

Tony Stewart won this year’s championship by a tiebreaker over Carl Stewart. Both finished the season with 2,403 points. Stewart was declared the titlist because he had five wins on the season to only one for Edwards.

It was the first time a championship had ever been decided by a tiebreaker – and, to a great extent, that satisfied the demand by many that a driver with the most wins should be champ.

And, as the season came to a close, Stewart and Edwards truly decided the matter between themselves. Over the final three races of the Chase they stood toe-to-toe like two bloodied heavyweight fighters. They exchanged punches and neither fell.

Stewart won at Martinsville and Edwards was second. Edwards finished second at Phoenix and Stewart was third. Stewart won at Homestead for his fifth win of the year and, in response, Edwards did the best he could – he led the most laps but finished second.

Neither driver gave away a title because of poor preparation, a mistake or an unfortunate on-track incident. It was simply man-against-man until the end.

I’d call that great season-ending competition for a championship, the type of which NASCAR and its fans rarely see. And, as said, the result was historical.

But NASCAR points out there was more to the year than just the final weeks of an intense championship season.

There was an average of 27.1 lead changes per race in 2011, the most in Cup competition. There was an average of 12.8 leaders per event, again a record since the series began in 1949.

Records were also set for margin of victory (1.321 seconds) and green-flag passes (131,989).

Eighteen different drivers won races in 2011, one short of the all-time record established in 2202.

But, to me, what is more significant here – and what further makes the 2011 season unique – is who those drivers were and the races they won.

At age 20, Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 and became the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup race.

He won driving a Wood Brothers Ford, which returned the venerable team to victory lane and enhanced its reputation as one of the most successful on the superspeedways. It brought back memories of the glory days with David Pearson.

Regan Smith drove for Furniture Row Racing, a team considered as likely to win as a plow horse in the Kentucky Derby.

But Smith stunned everyone with his victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington. That he won was surprising enough but where he did was even more so.

Darlington is the oldest superspeedway in NASCAR and is considered its toughest and most demanding. To win there is one of the greatest accomplishments in stock car racing.

Smith did just that and now has his name listed alongside those of Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Earnhardt and Gordon.

Hard to imagine but true – the young, upstart Smith is part of NASCAR lore.

David Ragan proved to team owner Jack Roush, and to all of us, that his potential was indeed real when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July to earn the first victory of his career.

Thus, improbably, both Daytona races of 2011 featured first-time winners.

Paul Menard’s family is steeped in racing tradition, much of which includes Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With Richard Childress Racing Menard won the Brickyard 400 in 2011 for his first career Sprint Cup victory – and at the track so much a part of his family’s competitive life.

As unlikely as the victory was it was more so emotionally and, let’s face it, historically. It was Hollywood stuff.

When Marcos Ambrose won at Watkins Glen to claim his first NASCAR victory it wasn’t all that surprising. It was thought all along that if the Australian should win it would be on a road course.

Nevertheless it was, to this point, the culmination of Ambrose’s NASCAR career.

He sacrificed much to make it happen, which included giving up residence in Tasmania to come to the United States, and endure uncertainty and all that comes with it.

The victory has enhanced his formidable reputation in his home country and did as much for NASCAR’s international presence.

The year indeed saw five new winners. But at no other time in NASCAR’s history did they win the races they did in a single season.

Let’s face it, while it’s true many thought Ambrose might break through on a road course, no one – and I mean no one – could predict that Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard won at three of NASCAR’s most storied tracks and in four of its most celebrated races.

The championship battle was intense, riveting and unprecedented. The new winners, and where they won, were historic. The numbers showed us competitive records were established.

The 2011 Sprint Cup season was unique and, to date, the best in NASCAR’s history.

Yeah, we have indeed heard that before. But this time it’s not hype. It is fact.

Edwards Emerges As Man Of Character And Certain Future Contender

Carl-Edwards

Carl Edwards may have been very disappointed over losing the 2011 championship by such a close tiebreaker margin to Tony Stewart, but he made a very strong effort at Homestead-Miami and emerged as a gracious loser.

Carl Edwards may not have won the 2011 Sprint Cup championship, but when the season ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway, not only was his reputation as one of NASCAR’s best drivers re-enforced, he also earned respect as a gracious, magnanimous loser.

No competitor in any sport likes to lose. But how he or she reacts in defeat speaks volumes about character.

Those who respond with dignity are recognized as athletes with high character and maturity. As a result they earn respect from fans and media alike. So it is with Edwards.

Edwards was clearly disappointed after he lost the championship to Tony Stewart in what is now the closest finish in NASCAR history.

But rather than rage in defeat, Edwards did two other things. He praised Stewart’s performance, adding that the Stewart-Haas driver was determined and mentally tough.

He also said that, while he was disappointed, he had no regrets. He was satisfied that he and his Roush Fenway Racing team had done as much as possible – and that he eagerly awaited 2012 and the opportunity to win the first championship of his career.

“My guys did a great job,” Edwards said. “We pushed Tony to the end and that is all I got. That is as hard as I can drive. I think it is really important to
give Tony the credit. Those guys did a good job.

 

“I will go home and work harder for next year and be back and make it just as hard on them, hopefully harder.”

Stewart’s victory margin was as close as it could possibly be, since he and Edwards finished with 2,403 points apiece. It came down to the tiebreaker, which was the most victories during the season.

Stewart had five; Edwards only one.

Remarkably, all five of Stewart’s victories came in the Chase. He started the “playoff” ranked ninth among the 12 contenders and, given that he hadn’t won all season, was convinced he wouldn’t be a factor in the championship battle.

But Stewart surprised everyone as he won the first two races in the Chase and rose to No. 1 in points. In the space of two weeks, he rose from self-described pretender to contender.

A week later, Stewart took it on the chin, as he finished 25th at Dover and fell to third in points.

Edwards took over second place on the basis of three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third at Dover.

Although no one knew it at the time a trend was being established. Edwards maintained his role as a challenger through consistency. He never finished worse than 11th throughout the Chase.

Stewart, meanwhile, could not match Edwards’ level of consistency. He wound up outside the top 10 in two of three races following his consecutive victories.

Edwards was the points leader after Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, and Stewart was in fourth place, 19 points back.

Stewart then again won twice in succession, at Martinsville and Texas. Edwards, however, held on to the points lead with consistent performances.

He was just three points ahead. The stage was set for the improbable and historical finish.

What makes the final three races of the year so competitively special in this year’s championship fight is that neither Edwards nor Stewart ever faltered.

Neither gave way to the other. It was like a heavyweight championship contest in which two bloodied fighters slugged each other mercilessly – but would not go down.

When Stewart won at Texas, Edwards finished second. Edwards hit back with a runnerup finish at Phoenix that was just one position ahead of Stewart.

The final round of the fight came at Homestead-Miami where Edwards maintained his three-point advantage.

No one really bothered to do the math in order to explain any potential championship scenarios. It was simple, really. For either driver to win regardless of what the other did he had to win – repeat, he HAD to win.

Homestead-finish

Stewart took the checkered flag 1.3 seconds ahead of Edwards. It marked the third time in the last three races of the Chase that the two had finished a mere one position apart. Stewart's five wins in the Chase propelled him to his third career title.

The race itself was the perfect example of how Stewart and Edwards had performed in the Chase.

Stewart overcame adversity. Early in the race his grille was busted and work in the pits eventually relegated him to a far back as 40th place.

It could have been over. However, Stewart rebounded again, mounting a determined effort to return to the head of the pack.

Which he did. It was reported that in his charge to the front Stewart passed 116 cars.

 

He also came back from an incident in the pits when an air gun broke and forced a two-tire change instead of four – which, again, meant the loss of track position.

Edwards remained the steady, unyielding force he had been throughout the Chase. He dominated, leading more laps than any other driver, and seemed well on his way to his third Homestead victory in four years.

Simply put, he repeated just about everything he had done earlier to put him at the cusp of a championship.

Stewart’s efforts were rewarded on lap 232 when he inherited the lead after Brad Keselowski was forced to pit. Four laps later Edwards moved into second place.

That set up the race-closing duel that ended when Stewart won by 1.3 seconds over Edwards. It marked the third straight time the two had finished a race separated by a single position.

The tiebreaker made the difference. Stewart’s unexpected five-victory surge in the Chase made him the champion.

“The only good thing about tonight
is that we didn’t make any mistakes, Edwards said. “We didn’t mess up and we didn’t beat ourselves. We made Tony and those guys come out and beat us and
they did. Congratulations to him. He is the champion and he earned it.

“I learned a ton, a lot about myself and competition at this level, and I will be ready to battle it out just like this every year if I get the opportunity.”

Oh, he will. I think it’s inevitable.

There’s an old saying in racing that goes, “In order to win a championship, first you must lose one.”

Many times, not always, that has held true.

If it does so again, it could mean that when it comes to a first career title, Carl Edwards will most certainly earn it.

 

Tony Stewart Outguns Carl Edwards


Tony Stewart out-gunned, out-duelled, and just plain old out-drove Carl Edwards to win the Sprint Cup Championship in NASCAR. Stewart fought his way through the pack twice on Sunday at Homestead Speedway in South Florida. It’s the first NASCAR Championship to be settled by a tie-breaker.

Stewart Is The Champion And Forever A Part Of NASCAR Lore

In dramatic fashion, Tony Stewart won the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He beat Carl Edwards to win the 2011 Sprint Cup championship by a tiebreaker for the first time in NASCAR history. Stewart is the champ because he had five wins this year- all in the Chase- to just one for Edwards.

It was, without a doubt, the greatest championship finish in NASCAR’s history. Believe me, that is not an understatement.

It was excruciatingly close – so close, in fact, that the 2011 Sprint Cup champion did not earn any more points than the runnerup.

It was the first time in NASCAR’s history that a championship was decided by a tiebreaker method, in this case, one driver took the crown because he had more victories than the other over the season.

Going into the title showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there was only one way either contender could be assured of the title regardless of what the other did. He had to win the race.

In the end, that’s what the champion did. He held off a challenger who relentlessly pursued him over the closing laps in a dramatic, exciting finish.

Tony Stewart, the 2011 Sprint Cup champion, is now and forever a part of NASCAR lore. He earned his title not only because he won the Ford 400, but also because he overcame numerous obstacles in the race to do so.

Once, due to a hole slugged into his grille by debris, he was in 40th place after lengthy stays in the pits. Yes, it was early in the race, but it appeared he may well have lost any hope to supplant Carl Edwards, the driver who came into the race first in points, only three in front of Stewart.

But it a remarkable display of perseverance, Stewart not only survived, he rose to become Edwards’ most serious challenger.

Over the course of the race, Stewart, in a gritty effort to overcome what had befallen him, by one count passed 116 cars.

Edwards, meanwhile, did what he had always done throughout the 10-race Chase. He was rigidly consistent. The Roush Fenway Racing driver, who had not finished worse than 11th in the “playoffs,” started from the pole and dominated, leading the most laps and earning a bonus point for doing so.

However, as notable as that accomplishment was, he still had to finish ahead of Stewart to assure himself the championship.

As much drama as the race contained – which included a stoppage that lasted for over an hour due to rain – there was none more intense than that with 56 of 267 laps remaining.

Edwards, the leader, pitted under green and Stewart inherited the point. He stayed out longer than anyone anticipated, following crew chief Darien Grubbs’ strategy, which dictated that if Stewart spent as much fuel as he could at that time, he could make it the rest of the way without another stop.

Stewart finally pitted, out of fuel, with 57 laps to go. He had the edge. Edwards was going to come up short on gas mileage.

But on lap 214, rain again hit the track and the race was put under caution for an extended period. That allowed Edwards to preserve fuel and as a result he, too, could finish the race without re-pitting.

It was now going to be a chase to the checkered flag. When the race restarted Stewart was fourth and Edwards sixth.

Less than one lap later Stewart moved into the lead. Edwards took second place four laps later and the fight was on.

Remarkably, while running one-two, the title contenders were tied in points. Each had 2,403, which made Edwards’ mission very clear. He had to beat Stewart. Nothing else would do because his rival, owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, had won more races in 2011.

Stewart’s five victories had come in the Chase, a remarkable achievement given that he hadn’t won in the 26 races prior to its start and once declared his team unworthy of championship contention.

Edwards, who had only one victory to his credit, made a noble effort. He closed to within one second of Stewart but it wasn’t enough – perhaps because he had only two fresh tires to Stewart’s four. Stewart won by 1.3 seconds.

“That’s all I could do,” said Edwards, who was trying to win his first career title. “I drove the car as hard as I could. I couldn’t drive it any harder. I gave it my best performance.

“Tony beat us fair and square. He and his team did a good job with strategy throughout the race. I did all I could do.

“I hold my head up. I told my wife that if I lost I would go out as the best loser NASCAR has ever had.”

Stewart has now won titles in three different NASCAR eras. His first was a Winston Cup championship in 2002, the second a Nextel Cup crown in 2005 and now, in 2011, it’s a Sprint Cup title.

Interestingly, all three of his championships were achieved under three different points systems.

Stewart is the last driver to win a title before Jimmie Johnson began his five-year reign. He’s now the first since its end. Johnson wound up sixth in the final point standings, the first time he’s finished outside the top five in his career.

Stewart is the first driver/owner to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki defeated Bill Elliott by 10 points in 1992 – previously the closest finish in NASCAR history.

He is one of only eight drivers to win three or more championships in a career.

“Oh thank the Lord for this one,” said Stewart, who earlier declared he would relentlessly pursue Edwards until the end. “It’s been a tough summer and a tough fall for us and you’ve got to believe in something; and the man upstairs held this rain off just long enough for us to get this job done.

“We said all week we’d just go out and win the race and we didn’t have to worry about what he (Edwards) did and that’s what we did.

“His guys have done an awesome job all year and my buddy Ricky Stenhouse won the Nationwide Championship yesterday and Jack (Roush, owner) got the Owner’s Championship so I didn’t feel bad taking this one away from them tonight.

“But Carl is a great competitor and a great guy and we’ve been giving him a rough time this week. But it was all in an effort to do what we did tonight and win this championship.

“He was the first one to me. And he said, ‘Promise me one thing, that you’ll enjoy this and I hope it’s you and me in this position again next year.’ So that just shows how much class he’s got.

“If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what will.”

To be honest, probably nothing will.

There have been a few dramatically close championship finishes in NASCAR.

But on Nov. 20, 2011, those who were fortunate enough to see what transpired at Homestead-Miami were privileged to witness an event that takes its place in stock car racing history.

The Season Of Bobby’s First Title And Richard’s Major Controversy

The 1983 NASCAR Winston Cup season settled into a fight between the Junior Johnson & Associates team with driver Darrell Waltrip and DiGard Racing Co. with veteran Bobby Allison behind the wheel.

By mid-season, Allison held a solid advantage in points. But Waltrip began to chip away, and at one point, gained nearly 130 points on Allison.

It seemed it all was going down to the wire. Waltrip was looking for a third-straight title with Junior’s team, while Allison was desperately seeking the first championship of his career.

As much as the points battle captured the headlines, it paled when NASCAR became embroiled in one of the biggest controversies in its history – which involved the driver considered by many to be its greatest ever.

It also involved Junior and his driver. And if the issue had been settled differently than the way it was, that could have made all the difference in the championship.

But in the end that wasn’t to be.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

Now, I will admit I was pretty ticked at the way Darrell lost at Talladega in July. He was fighting for the lead with Dale Earnhardt when Bobby Allison tucked in behind Dale to give him the push he needed to win.

Bobby was a lap down at the time. I felt he had no business sticking his nose into it. He should have left the racing to Darrell and Dale – and I said so.

But it wasn’t long before I realized that, while the Talladega loss was tough to take, we still had a chance to win the championship.

Darrell was 170 points behind Bobby with 11 races remaining in the season. There was plenty of time.

Things got a lot better just two weeks later. On Aug. 21 at Michigan, Bobby lost all the oil pressure in his car after just 137 laps. He left the race and wound up 34th in the 37-car field.

Meanwhile, Darrell ran a great race. He didn’t win – he finished second to Cale Yarborough by a half-second – but with Bobby out of the race, Darrell picked up a bunch of points.

He was only 61 points behind Bobby with 10 races left in the season. It appeared Bobby was going squander a big lead for the second time in two seasons. I wouldn’t mind a bit.

It got better. We ended a nine-race losing streak at Bristol a week later. I’ll admit that my cars had always been strong on short tracks, and Darrell was great on the half-milers, but it was the pit crew that won this one for us.

Darrell and Dale pitted for four tires on lap 411, when the caution came out after Neil Bonnett spun. Dale pretty much had been dominating the race until then but my guys got Darrell out of the pits first – and into the lead.

Since everyone knew rain was coming, Darrell held the best track position. Sure enough, the wet weather hit and NASCAR was forced to call the race off after 419 laps.

Bobby finished third but we cut another 20 points out of his lead. We were only 41 points back – a gain of 129 points in just two races – with nine to go.

I was feeling very, very confident and Darrell was too. Maybe he was a bit too confident.

He said 20 points was a very big deal and that we were poised to win a third consecutive championship.

“We’re only 41 points down,” he added. “We got ‘em where we want ‘em.”

Well, no, we didn’t.

Allison

Bobby Allison won his first career Winston Cup championship in 1983 when he finished 47 points ahead of Darrell Waltrip, who was bidding to win a third straight title with Junior. The season was marked with one of the biggest controversies in NASCAR history, which occurred in Charlotte and involved Richard Petty.

Remember I said it looked like Bobby was going to squander another points lead? Reckon he decided that, no, he wasn’t about to do that.

Danged if he didn’t go out and win the next three races, at Darlington, Richmond and Dover. Darrell finished in the top 10 in all those races – third twice, at Darlington and Richmond – but in the space of three weeks we lost 70 points.

Bobby was in front by 101 points with six races to go. We could still pull it out but, admittedly, things didn’t look nearly as rosy as they did just a few weeks earlier.

Even when Darrell won at North Wilkesboro in early October, we couldn’t gain much ground on Bobby, who finished third. We were 91 points down with four races remaining.

Then came the Miller High Life 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 9.

Darrell worked his way into the lead on lap 292 of 334. It was the first time he got out in front.

He stayed there until lap 312, when Richard Petty came out of nowhere to zip past Darrell to lead for the first time.

Petty’s car looked like a blue blur as it went past Darrell in the second turn and he just flat-out pulled way. Darrell simply could not stay with him – much less catch him – and Richard won by more than three seconds.

I knew something wasn’t right. Richard went by Darrell as if he was tied to the track. I realized immediately what Richard’s team had done.

It put soft compound left-side tires on the right side. This gave Richard much more traction in the turns and it made him faster.

I sent two of my boys to Victory Lane to take a look at Richard’s tires and, sure enough, they told me his team had done exactly what I suspected.

NASCAR saw it, too, and ordered Richard’s car to a secure area to have it torn down.

But Maurice Petty, Richard’s brother and engine builder, told them not to bother. He said the motor was too big. NASCAR tore it down anyway and discovered that it wasn’t big – it was huge.

It measured a whopping 381.983 cubic inches, well over the 351 cu. in. maximum.

So Darrell gets beat by an obviously illegal car? To top it off, Richard was allowed to keep the victory but he was fined $35,000 and stripped of 104 points.

I thought at the time, are you kidding me?

I don’t think I have to tell you how Darrell and I reacted.

Darrell flatly said that he had nothing against Richard, but given that he won with an illegal car, Darrell should have been given the victory.

I was a bit more blunt. I didn’t have anything against Richard, either, but I had a serious beef with NASCAR. Just three weeks earlier they had taken four laps away from Tim Richmond for using illegal tires. Four laps! It would have made all the difference for us at Charlotte.

But NASCAR said the difference was that it had taken Richard’s money. I told them, “Like hell it was Richard’s money! It was my money!”

The episode was embarrassing for NASCAR and its top star. Some of Richard’s most loyal fans said he should have returned the victory, but of course, he never did.

I’d like to say that we responded nicely after Charlotte but the truth is we didn’t win another race and finished the year second in points, 47 behind Bobby, who won the first championship of his career.

I’ll admit I was happy for him because he had tried so hard for so many years.

But I also thought that if he had done things a bit differently when he was racing for me in 1972, it would have been his second championship.

The Scenario Tells Us This One Might Be One For The Ages

Carl Edwards Tony Stewart

Carl Edwards (top) and Tony Stewart have been just three points apart in the race for the 2011 championship for the last two weeks. It all comes down to Homestead this weekend, where the two drivers will feel all the pressure in what has become one of the closest battles for a title in NASCAR's history.

You’ve gotta like this.

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will be decided this weekend between two drivers – those left standing after nine races in the Chase- separated by so few points it is virtually impossible to predict who will win – although I’m sure many of us will try.

Carl Edwards, the Roush Fenway Racing driver who has held the points lead for the last five weeks, comes into the Ford 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway with only a three-point lead over Tony Stewart.

Stewart, who drives for the Stewart-Haas team he co-owns, is in contention for his third career championship based upon the four victories he’s earned in the Chase.

In the past there have been championship scenarios as close. And a few of them featured as many as three competitors in an agonizingly tight battle.

In 2004, Kurt Busch beat Jimmie Johnson for the title by eight points – the closest margin in NASCAR history. In 2005, Stewart won his first by 35 points over Greg Biffle and Edwards.

When Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship in 2010, he overcame a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin at Homestead to take the title by 39 points.

This time, things are a little bit different. This will be the first championship decided under NASCAR’s revised Chase format that, among other things, was intended to be simpler and easier to follow.

I can’t help but think that while the goal of simplicity was one thing, for NASCAR, it would be even more important if the new system produced a tense championship contest similar to several in the past. It has.

Ironically, Edwards was three points ahead of Stewart when the Chase began in Chicago on Sept. 19. At the time, however, he was fifth in points and Stewart was ninth. Edwards’ victory in Las Vegas in March made the difference.

At the time Stewart was winless and groused that his team wasn’t performing well enough to be in the Chase.

That changed quickly. Stewart won the first two races in the Chase and climbed to No. 1 in points, three spots and 14 points ahead of Edwards.

Then Stewart cooled down and the consistent Edwards took the points lead after his fifth-place finish at Kansas.

Stewart lit the jets again with another pair of consecutive victories at Martinsville and Texas. But he couldn’t wrest the lead away from Edwards, who finished ninth and second, respectively.

They were three points apart going into Phoenix. Afterward, as hard as it might be to believe, the margin remained the same.

For a time it appeared Stewart might cruise to victory No. 5 in the Kobalt Tools 500. He led the most laps to earn valuable bonus points.

But things changed after the last pit stop. The handling in Stewart’s car changed. It became too loose in the turns.

Edwards, meanwhile, held steady on the track, taking no chances as he finished second to winner Kasey Kahne. Stewart was a position behind and, because he had led the most laps, he matched Edwards with 43 points.

Had circumstances been different and Stewart won the race, he would now have the points lead and added momentum.

As it is the two remain three points apart for the second consecutive week.

Certainly Stewart’s competitive turnaround at the start of the Chase has been highly beneficial. He’s been able to parlay victories and bonus points into a near-deadlock for the championship. His four wins also provide him with the tiebreaker, if needed. It’s something else in his favor.

Edwards hasn’t won in the Chase but his consistency has been remarkable. His worst finish has been an 11th at Talladega. His average finish is 5.2, which is a clear example of why he’s risen to first in points.

If he wins or finishes second at Homestead he will best Johnson’s average finish of 5.0 in the 2007 Chase.

NASCAR tells us the only way Edwards is guaranteed the title is if he wins at Homestead. With the three-point margin, no other result gives Edwards the championship, regardless of where Stewart finishes.

NASCAR added that Edwards’ lead translates into about 13 points under the previous system, the closest margin ever going into the final race of the Chase. It’s also the third closest since the inception of a points-based system in 1975.

Incidentally, if Stewart wins at Homestead he’ll clinch the title, even if Edwards is second and leads the most laps. That would leave the drivers tied in points and Stewart owns the tiebreaker.

It’s likely the odds makers – who make a living absorbing facts and figures – would establish Edwards as the favorite.

He has won two of the last three races at Homestead. He drives a Ford and Ford has won seven of the 12 races held at the 1.5-mile track. Stewart competes in a Chevrolet, which has never won at Homestead.

Roush Fenway has fielded the winner in six of the last seven races at Homestead.

Yes, the odds are presently in Edwards’ favor – seemingly.

But in this championship scenario pressure is huge and emotions run high. Every step of car preparation will be intensely scrutinized – especially so at the track.

Simply put, the two drivers and their teams will be in a pressure cooker. To me, that says while numbers may account for something, they certainly don’t account for everything.

Edwards said the championship could come down to the last lap at Homestead. Given what we’ve seen over the past two weeks that is a distinct possibility.

Seems only fitting that it is the way it will be.

If so, you really gotta like that.

Improbable Phoenix Finish Sets Up Edwards-Stewart Title Showdown

Kahne

Kasey Kahne won at Phoenix for his his first win of the year and the 12th time in his career. For his Red Bull Racing team, the victory was a tremendous lift in a long season that, when over, could mean the team's demise.

I’m not sure even Hollywood would touch a script based upon what happened in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The two guys vying for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship came into the race separated by a mere three points. Each one stages a terrific performance in an effort to keep, or take away, the points lead.

As it turns out neither one wins the race. But, remarkably, they finish second and third. Even more remarkable, their separation in points remains at three with just one race left in the season.

Hollywood ain’t buying.

Oh, it gets better. The guy who does win at Phoenix is not only ineligible for a championship, he also hadn’t been victorious in the last 81 races – over two years ago.

There’s more. The team for which he races will lose all its financial support at the end of the year and, unless it is sold, will no longer exist – which means that many talented people will become unemployed.

So with the victory the team gains a full measure of satisfaction and, if it should dissolve, at least it knows it had a glorious moment in the limelight before the end.

And yet, perhaps, its performance has been enough to prove its worth and entice a buyer who pulls it back from the brink of extinction.

Trust me, Hollywood sure ain’t buying this tale. I’m not sure even Disney or Spielberg would have anything to do with it.

But, as has been said often, sometimes reality can be far stranger than fiction. So it is after Phoenix.

When the race began Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards held a slim three-point lead over Tony Stewart, who moved into the role of title contender based upon his four wins in the Chase – easily more than any other driver.

At Phoenix, Stewart did all he could to overtake Edwards. Among other things, as he made a strong bid for win No. 5 in the Chase, he led the most laps.

But in the end circumstances dictated that Stewart would finish one position behind Edwards, who also made a strong run for victory but wound up in second place.

Edwards second; Stewart third and, as improbable as it sounds, they remain three points apart as the season comes to a close on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne, who was 21st in points and hopelessly out of championship consideration when the Chase began at Chicago on Sept. 18, won at Phoenix to give Red Bull Racing its first, and to date only, victory of 2011.

It was announced weeks ago that Red Bull would cease its NASCAR operations after this season. Not that it would affect Kahne – who is headed to Hendrick Motorsports next season as Mark Martin’s replacement – but it would mean yet another wave of job losses unless the team is sold.

Finding a buyer has been a pressing task for team general manager Jay Frye. Maybe the job has now become a little bit easier because anyone interested in NASCAR team ownership must have sense enough to know that all the talent involved – not just that of the driver and crew chief – is the true measure of success.

Simply put, the victory certainly doesn’t hurt Frye’s efforts a darn bit, does it?

Kahne’s victory should come as no surprise. Given his performances in recent weeks many thought it was just a matter of time

Edwards-Stewart

As improbable as it sounds, Carl Edwards (left) finished second at Phoenix while Tony Stewart wound up third. That means the two are still only three points apart, with Edwards in front, in the fight for the title as the season comes to a close at Homestead this weekend.

During the Chase he has been the best among the non-qualifiers. In five of the six races preceding Phoenix, he did not finish lower than sixth – including a second place at Kansas and a third at Texas.

“It means a lot,” said Kahne, who last won at Atlanta in September of 2009 and now has 12 career victories. “Some of these guys haven’t won before and it felt like I haven’t won, either.

“For Kenny (Francis, crew chief, who will join Kahne at Hendrick) and the whole team that’s been together for a while at Red Bull, it’s been a long season. The guys haven’t given up. We keep getting better as the season goes and it takes time to finish things up. I just wanted to win for them really bad before the switch.

“Man, they’ve been a big part of NASCAR. I just hope in some way they are still a big part of NASCAR because I know everyone really enjoys them being here.”

The race-closing series of green-flag pit stops made the difference at Phoenix. With 21 laps remaining in the 312-lap race, Edwards pitted to surrender his lead.

Stewart pitted two laps later and suffered after an air pressure adjustment negatively affected his car’s handling.

With 14 laps to go leader Brad Keselowski pitted to give Kahne the lead he would hold until the finish.

On the last lap Stewart passed Jeff Burton to move into third place behind Edwards to set up the season’s most unlikely, and very dramatic, conclusion. It’s down to Edwards and Stewart. All other Chase contenders have been eliminated.

We did almost everything we needed to do,” said Stewart, a two-time champion. “We led a lap, led the most laps, and just came up two spots shy. But it was just a little bit too loose on entry the last two runs there.

“We were able to run Jeff down and get back to third. So we’re keeping Carl honest.

“We have a third and two wins in the last three races so we’re going to keep the pressure on him. We’ll make him sweat it out.”

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Edwards, who has won two of the last three races at Homestead and may become the first driver to win a title with just one victory in a season since Matt Kenseth in 2003. “It is going to be fun. It is neat to go to Homestead and race it out.

“I love that place. It was a good hard fought day. I am really pumped for Homestead. I think it is going to be a good time.”

I don’t think there can be any doubt about that.

Nor should any of us be surprised if the race produces another scenario even Hollywood would not believe.

What Ails Kyle Busch Can Be Cured By Maturity

Kyle-Busch

After his actions in Texas, Kyle Busch has been heavily penalized and may face even more serious sanctions in the very near future - if not already. Busch has immense talent but the cause of his woes is simple: He lacks maturity. He can change that and it will serve him well if he does.

Kyle Busch’s actions in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas nearly a week ago created, for a time, a firestorm of debate.

When Busch deliberately wrecked championship challenger Ron Hornaday, NASCAR responded by parking him for the rest of the event and the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races later that weekend.

That action effectively squashed any hopes Busch and the Joe Gibbs Racing team had of winning a Cup title.

Then, on the Monday after the Cup race, NASCAR announced that it had fined Busch $50,000 and placed him on probation for the rest of the year. Should he violate that probation he would be indefinitely suspended.

Admittedly, all of this is a very harsh judgment.

This week it has been reported that Busch might be pulled from the Gibbs’ ride for Phoenix and Homestead. The final decision was that of Gibbs and the team’s sponsors. NASCAR had cleared Busch to compete in the final two events of the year.

As of this writing nothing was official.

The controversy that boiled earlier in the week centered on the sanctioning body’s rulings at Texas and afterward. Was Busch punished adequately – or even not enough?

Or were NASCAR’s actions too harsh, even inappropriate, given that it has completely avoided any penalties for those who appeared to have committed crimes as great as Busch’s?

Does NASCAR carry a vendetta against Busch, who has been a constant source of irritation for years?

After digesting much that has already been said and written, I’ll offer an opinion – for what it may be worth.

I’ll start by saying something I think no one can deny.

Busch is an incredibly talented race driver.

In the space of only eight years in NASCAR, the 26-year-old competitor from Las Vegas has won 23 Sprint Cup races, a record 51 on the Nationwide Series and 30 in trucks.

That’s 104 wins in NASCAR’s top three national touring series. I can think of no other driver who has even approached that in so short a time. At his young age Busch has the opportunity to establish several all-time records.

He has risen to the top of his profession and in so doing has made himself a millionaire many times over. There can be no doubt he’s earned his celebrity.

Yes, Busch has a massive amount of talent.

But he also has a very meager amount of maturity.

Immaturity is, in fact, the cause of all of Busch’s problems.

I don’t know if he thinks he’s better than anyone else, or that he should be able to do what he wants when he wants, but I do know that his actions last week – and several times in the past – clearly indicate he allows his emotions to overrule his judgment.

To establish himself as a respected competitor whose interactions with others, and behavior on and off the track, match his obvious talent, Busch must grow up. It’s that simple.

If he doesn’t, I can assure you that in time, team owners and sponsors will become fed up with a person they perceive to be a spoiled brat who, for them, creates more harm than good.

I am very aware drivers are highly competitive and, in the heat of battle, can respond harshly when they think they have been wronged. It happens all the time.

For Busch, however, it has become routine. Afterward he has issued apologies coupled with the promise that it won’t happen again. He apologized one more time for his actions at Texas, to which many have responded, “Yeah, so what?”

A couple of Busch’s sponsors have expressed their disapproval and have issued their own ultimatums.

Busch is not unique. There have been other drivers rich with talent and short on maturity.

Tony Stewart, a two-time NASCAR champion, is a former Gibbs driver whose knowledge of anger management was nil. He virtually assaulted a photographer and a reporter and got into spats and on-track incidents with other drivers. He thus sustained, many times, harsh NASCAR – and sponsor – judgment.

There was a time when, because of his words and actions, he had to fight to keep his job.

But today, while some may suggest he is still somewhat of an obnoxious smart aleck, I think he’s realized that he has to act sensibly and hold his emotions in check, at least publicly.

Perhaps part of that is because he’s a team owner with multiple responsibilities.

Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother is another example.

Without going into great detail, the elder Busch was removed from his car for the final two races of 2005 in a joint decision from Roush Fenway Racing and sponsors after being charged by Arizona sheriffs for reckless driving.

Said Roush officials: “We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists.”

Prior to that, Busch, the 2004 champion, had acquired a reputation as an incorrigible.

Today I think we see a different older brother. Yes, we’ve all heard how sarcastic and mean-spirited he sounds via radio communication with his team, but so what? He’s entitled. That’s within his territory and not the public’s.

Last I saw, he didn’t deliberately wreck anyone nor throw a punch or two in the garage area.

I hope I am not proven wrong in the future but I do believe that two of Kyle Busch’s contemporaries, his brother and Stewart, have learned lessons.

He can do the same.

As for NASCAR, admittedly it set the stage for some on-track altercations when it established the “Boys, have at it” philosophy, which encouraged drivers to settle differences among themselves.

This was in response to fans’ complaints that drivers had become too politically correct and the true rough-and-tumble spirit of stock car racing had been lost.

But NASCAR also said that it would step in if things got out of hand – which is simply logical – and that it would know when that line was crossed.

Which is what it thought happened in the Texas truck race.

I have seen and heard reports that with the younger Busch, NASCAR went too far especially since previous fouls by others, seemingly just as blatant, occurred without punishment or even response.

It has been suggested that NASCAR simply overreacted with Busch.

This is utter nonsense.

What Busch did was so flagrant, so obvious that had not NASCAR responded harshly it would be considered impotent and the biggest joke in professional sports.

Who could have not clearly seen or understood what happened? A friend of mine, whose knowledge of stock car racing is miniscule, watched a replay and said, “Are they allowed to do that? Don’t people get hurt?”

There was no gray area here; no issue for debate. NASCAR had to strongly deal with it and it did – rightly so.

My conclusion to is that Kyle Busch’s talent and achievements are irrefutable. They should be, and have been, recognized.

What he lacks is maturity.

He can acquire that. Frankly, he must.

When, and if, he does, he may well indeed rise to the rank of champion and in time become one of the best, among fans and peers, NASCAR has ever had.

It’s all up to him.

Print This Post Print This Post