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.

Two Contract Negotiations: One Simple, One Not So Much So

The latest NASCAR Sprint Cup news has provided us with two examples of the types of contract negotiations that can take place between a driver and a team.

And these examples are polar opposites.

According to reports, one wasn’t a negotiation at all. It was a conversation between driver and owner – apparently an amiable one that could have taken place over a couple of cold beers – that resulted in a handshake, maybe a slap or two on the back and a multi-year deal.

We’re told that the other one isn’t so much a situation where the owner and driver are at loggerheads. Rather, they are hunting for the means to continue racing together – and haven’t achieved results. No back-slapping here.

If financial support can’t be found, the driver will likely move on. Word is he already has an offer.

That seems to be the situation with Clint Bowyer, who has yet to agree to a contract extension with Richard Childress Racing. He’s been with Childress since 2005 and has won four races.

According to Bowyer, he’s still working on a deal with RCR, but the problem is a lack of sponsorship.

“These things take time and you just can’t jump in with both feet,” Bowyer said. “You’ve got to be patient and wait on the sponsorship search to pan out for you.”

Bowyer added that the media asks him every week about his contract status (which is true) and that tends to start rumors.

Such as the substantiated report Bowyer has already been offered a deal from Richard Petty Motorsports.

“That stuff only complicates my situation and confuses all parties involved,” Bowyer said. “I wish I could push the pressure to get a deal done aside that easily, but I certainly have been busy.”

Bowyer added his intentions now are to make the Chase, at which he has a shot. Despite the speculation and uncertainty, he said he’s 100 percent focused on performance.

I think there is a bit more to all of this. There always seems to be. But if it’s fact Childress and Bowyer are in fruitless sponsorship search, so far, in order to stay together, if it can’t be found Bowyer has to make a move.

On the other hand, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t going anywhere. He and Rick Hendrick recently announced that Earnhardt Jr. had renewed his contract with Hendrick Motorsports for five years. He’ll be one of the team’s drivers through 2017.

A five-year commitment between driver and team is unusual. Most agreements are for a shorter period of time.

And one might think an owner like Hendrick might be more inclined to offer such a lengthy contract to a competitor who has been more productive than Earnhardt Jr. in the last few years.

The 36-year-old driver hasn’t won a race since 2008, his first full season with Hendrick, and that’s also the year he made his only appearance in the Chase.

In 2009, he finished 25th in points and was 21st last season. Hendrick made wholesale changes to the team. People began to suggest that Earnhardt Jr. really wasn’t all that good as a race driver.

And there appeared to be a time when his confidence was shaken.

You might think that, given all this, Hendrick would be less effusive with his contract agreements. To many, he couldn’t be faulted if he tried to replace Earnhardt Jr.

But he obviously has no intentions of doing so. While I believe he surely wants to see Earnhardt Jr. perform better and be more competitive, they alone aren’t the foundations for successful contract negotiations.

“My feelings haven’t changed since the day he first signed with us,” Hendrick said of Earnhardt Jr. “I’m committed as ever to putting him in the best possible situation to be successful and compete for wins and championships.”

We’ve heard that before and now, with a new five-year agreement, we can believe Hendrick means every word of it.

I think the Hendrick-Earnhardt Jr. association is somewhat unique simply because it is not competitively based. I think its bedrock is formed by the personal relationship between driver and owner, and things Earnhardt Jr. brings to the table that are every bit appealing as good performance.

It’s obvious the two have a good relationship. It seems they have few, if any, disagreements and share much with each other that doesn’t have anything to do with a race track.

This is a bit corny, but sometimes it seems Earnhardt Jr. considers Hendrick to be his favorite uncle.

But there is also this: Earnhardt Jr. is a marketing dynamo. Products with his name and likeness on them far outsell those of other drivers.

He commands a legion of loyal fans that, despite his lack of competitiveness, have never left his side. He has been consistently voted NASCAR’s most popular driver and likely will be again.

With such widespread appeal and command of loyalty, Earnhardt Jr. is an advertiser’s dream. No one can better spread the word; no one can reach more people through a personal appearance or television commercial.

Hendrick doesn’t seem to have had any problems securing sponsorship for Earnhardt Jr. and, given that he’s signed him for another five years, apparently Hendrick doesn’t think he’s going to have any difficulty finding money in the future.

When a driver has that sort of clout it’s a very good thing – and can keep him and a team unified.

Ironically, all of this is precisely what Earnhardt Jr.’s father, Dale, had with Childress and RCR. Owner and driver were good friends; the late Earnhardt was immensely popular, considered an icon and, finally, was easily NASCAR’s most marketable figure – and its leading statesman.

Of course, the elder Earnhardt won more races than his son and was a champion seven times. It’s not likely Earnhardt Jr. is going to match his father’s achievements.

Doesn’t seem to matter, does it? He’s going to be gainfully employed with one of NASCAR’s top teams for several more years – perhaps even longer.

Mr. Smith’s Improbable Journey At Darlington Raceway

A couple of points to consider after the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway:

** Sometimes racing rewards us with the unexpected, the unanticipated.

Something happens that is so far beyond the limits of our belief that we really can’t fathom it. We can only can only stand there in amazement, somewhat slack-jawed as we say to ourselves and anyone else who cares to listen, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

We had such a moment in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. For years it has been one of NASCAR’s most prominent and venerated races. It’s the oldest held on an asphalt track. It’s conducted on a 1.366-mile layout that is considered the toughest in all of stock car racing.

It is a race that has been won by the likes of David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and other giants of the sport. Journeymen and, essentially, nobodies do not win it.

Now, however, it has been done. The Southern 500 will go into lore as one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history and one of the most feel-good finishes of all time.

That’s because it was won by Regan Smith – yes, the same Regan Smith who is part of an underfunded, one-car team, which has 64 employees, uses a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.

It’s the same Regan Smith who has routinely began regarded as, at best, an also-ran in any race he’s entered.

And, perhaps, the same Regan Smith many of us regarded as a nobody. Trust me, after Darlington he is somebody special, indeed.

“I’m not supposed to do this,” said the 27-year-old Smith as he choked up with tears in victory lane. “I’ve never even had a top five.”

At Darlington, Smith wasn’t handed anything. He earned it.

He gambled and stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted for tires with 10 laps remaining. He told us later that the strategy was one he hoped crew chief Pete Rondeau would adopt.

Smith appeared to be a sitting duck. Behind him on the restart was Carl Edwards, who had been a strong as nine rows of garlic throughout the trace and, unlike Smith, was on fresh tires.

Smith spun his tires on the restart but held the lead. He caught a bit of a break when Brad Keselowski wedged himself between Smith and Edwards.

He caught another when he bobbled – only to have Edwards do the same thing.

Despite his newer tires, Edwards could never reach Smith, who managed to keep his Chevrolet in the fresh air.

Smith led Edwards, the points leader, over the green-white-checkered finish and in so doing, put his name alongside those of the sport’s greats.

Smith’s accomplishment was not lost on others. Among those who congratulated him afterward were Kurt Busch, Greg Biffile and Edwards, who said that if he couldn’t win it was good that Smith did.

Smith is the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie of the year who has gained some notoriety of late because of excellent qualifying efforts.

But he’s seldom, if ever, been considered a victory contender. Everything seems to have worked against him – a small team based in Denver, Colo., of all places, and one that has never been given any chance against the sport’s powerhouses, like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the like.

Smith, however, came close to victory prior to Darlington. In 2008, he passed Tony Stewart for what appeared to be a win at Talladega until NASCAR took it away because Smith went below the yellow, out-of-bounds, line.

This victory will not be taken away from Smith.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith, who earned his first NASCAR victory and admittedly, first of any kind that he can remember. “When I walked to the car today, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did.

“I can’t believe his. It’s too cool.”

What Smith has given us, and NASCAR, is yet another unanticipated moment when an underdog proves his mettle.

We saw it in Daytona this year when young Trevor Bayne shocked, and pleased, everyone with his victory in the 500 – which restored immeasurable luster to the tarnished, yet venerated, team known as Wood Brothers Racing.

When you think about it, isn’t to have someone succeed despite odds and adversity a true essence and beauty of sports?

Of course it is.

 

 

** Now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s too bad that with his victory, Smith had to share the limelight, even in the slightest, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Truth is that after the Southern 500, most of the talk and TV highlights will be about these two.

They engaged in some bumping and grinding on the track and that carried over a postrace confrontation in which Harvick took a couple of swings at Busch as the two stopped post-race on the track, just above pit road.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you fans and media alike enjoy driver dust-ups. If nothing else, they smack of the good ol’ days of NASCAR, when competitors settled issues among themselves with fists, tire irons or maybe even a .38.

And there’s nothing wrong with venting, if for no other reason than that given by Tony Stewart, who said that blowing off steam never fixed a car, but it often made a driver feel better.

Hope Busch and Harvick feel better because they certainly did themselves no service.

When it comes to incidents between drivers, NASCAR has tried extremely hard to let the issues be settled among themselves.

Doesn’t always work, as was made clear in the latest episode of Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman.

However, when NASCAR does decide to act that’s when a team can potentially suffer, especially if the sanctioning body responds with loss of points, probation, etc.

When Montoya seemed to show no signs of perceived over aggressiveness in the Southern 500, reportedly NASCAR conveyed its dislike.

Montoya retreated into a shell and was a non-entity for the remainder of the race. Didn’t serve him well in points.

As for Busch-Harvick, we don’t yet know if NASCAR is going to take the matter into its own hands. But you can bet the farm it will.

That’s because when Harvick decided to take a poke at Busch, Harvick’s unattended car rushed across pit road and slammed into the inside pit wall.

That car could have hit any number of people or, worse, pinned someone against the wall.

NASCAR may be relenting when it comes to driver vs. driver, but anytime their actions threaten the well being of others, the sanctioning body wastes no time in judgment.

They may not have been intentional, but Harvick’s actions posed a serious danger on pit road. This is something NASCAR will not tolerate.

I would be stunned if Harvick does not receive a rather stiff punishment sometime this week – maybe Busch, too, but certainly Harvick.

It’s just one example of how a confrontation can get out of hand and become, in the end, much more than for what a driver bargained.

 

Numbers Tell Us The Competition Ain’t Bad, For Now

As the 2011 season heads into Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the Samsung Mobile 500 tonight it is interesting to note how, competition-wise, the preceding six races have provided excellent storylines.

This is NASCAR’s opinion, you understand, not mine – but I must say that I agree with it.

“Storylines” might be the wrong word here. Let’s just say that what has transpired so far are simply facts that deserve our attention.

Why, you might ask. It’s because some of what we might have expected so far this season has not happened – and some of what we did not, in many ways, has.

I use as evidence of all this information provided by NASCAR; information that puts its competition in a good light. But when it comes to competition, the sanctioning body is all about promoting the quality therein whenever possible – which is its job, after all.

The facts and figures are accurate. They are not manipulated. They are what they are, and, to be honest, they are intriguing.

We’re told that two of last year’s top winners, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, remain winless going into Texas. I’m not sure about you, but I’m one of those who thought either one of them would have been victorious by now. Heck, if nothing else, they were the hands-down favorites at Martinsville.

And you knew that, didn’t you?

Interestingly, lead-change records have fallen in three of the six Sprint Cup races so far, at Daytona, Phoenix and Martinsville.

There has been, NASCAR tells us, an average of 31.5 lead changes per race, the most after six events in series history.

Now I would be one of the first to say this is nothing but the result of racing circumstances. But I would quickly add that races that have produced record lead changes at such a high average are, if not great, certainly compelling.

After all, which race is better – one in which several drivers swap the lead or one in which a driver dominates to the point of boredom? I think you know.

NASCAR tells us that, through six races, there has been an average of 13 leaders per race, the most in series history.

Again I would say this is the result of circumstances. But I would also say that, as far as fan and media appeal, it beats the hell out of anything else.

We know that prior to Kevin Harvick’s win at Martinsville, his second in a row, there were five different winners in the first five races of the season. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2005.

Once more, it’s all about circumstances.

But then, given what has happened so far, consider this: You tell me, if you like real competition, what is more appealing – that one or two drivers dominate or that several win – and in some cases we are ultimately greatly surprised when they do?

Case in point: Face it, when Trevor Bayne and Wood Brothers Racing won the Daytona 500 was that not a big, pleasant surprise that ultimately captured national attention?

Headed into Texas, seven different teams occupied the top seven positions in the point standings. They were Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hey, I like it. To me it’s a more intriguing scenario than oh, say, for Roush to have four teams among the top seven and Hendrick the other three – unless you’re a big fan of either team, or both.

Finally, NASCAR pointed out that the top four drivers in the point standings all run different manufacturers.

If I had to guess, the sanctioning body revels in this statistic more than any other. It’s proof, somewhat, that its ongoing efforts to create a level playing field for all its participating manufacturers are paying off – for now, anyway.

I know all of this is NASCAR tooting its own horn. But why not? There have been seasons in the past when it didn’t have a horn to toot.

Tooting aside, the numbers do tell us the competition in NASCAR, so far, ain’t been bad at all.

Starting at Texas tonight, we’ll see if stays the same, gets better or gets worse.

 

The 500 Was A Woods Revival, And Other Observations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A few observations about the Daytona 500:

— Wood Brothers Racing will not go away.

I suspect many of you felt the same as I from time to time – the NASCAR organization which has been in existence for over six decades was something like a worn-out thoroughbred whose glory was long past and then put out to pasture.

What the thoroughbred had accomplished would never be forgotten, to be sure, but its future would be humble until the end of its days.

It seems that the future for the Woods might well be anything but humble.

In one of the most improbable Daytona 500 finishes ever, if not the most improbable, the Woods won for the fifth time with a kid named Trevor Bayne as their driver. He made only the second Sprint Cup start of his career.

A kid who turned 20 just one day before the race, who wears a retainer and can’t drink victory lane champagne for another year, and who got the ride with the Woods for reasons too many to list here, wins NASCAR’s most prestigious race.

And he did it with a team that, as mentioned, seemed to be a shadow of itself. Because of a lack of sponsorship that forced it to make the most of the dollars it had, it has run only a limited schedule for the past two seasons.

I had a conversation with Len Wood, who, along with brother Eddie, now runs the team formed by their father Glen and his brother Leonard, and he said, among other things, that the goal was to enter 17 races this year with Bayne if sponsorship could be found.

I admit a part of me thought this was, at best, a very lofty goal.

Now, however, given Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory it might well happen – or even more. There’s a fair amount of logic to invest money in a venerated team with an obviously talented young, and personable, driver whose future seems bright.

The victory was no fluke. Bayne had been impressive throughout Speed Weeks. He was Jeff Gordon’s ally of choice in a Gatorade Duel race – and performed admirably – until Bayne was taken out by an accident.

Word quickly spread through the garage area that Bayne had the chops to compete in the 500’s new style of racing.

It evolved that he was the leader on the second of two green-white-flag restarts and, with a push from veteran Bobby Labonte, was able to prove he was just as able as the guy out in front as he was the one who gave the shove.

It was the fifth Daytona 500 victory for the Woods. But it was easily the most unexpected since Tiny Lund’s win in 1963 when he substituted for the injured Marvin Panch. Their other winners are A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson.

They were all superstars. Trevor Bayne isn’t – yet. But then, his victory might prove to be the most rewarding ever, in more ways than one, for the Wood Brothers, who aren’t out to pasture yet.

— Speaking of improbable, accolades are due to drivers whom most of us thought wouldn’t be factors in the Daytona 500.

They include David Ragan, who might have won the race had he not been penalized for moving out of position before he reached the start-finish line during the first green-white-checkered flag restart, and Labonte, who finished fourth in his first start with JTG/Daugherty Racing, a team he feels will put him back into prominence.

David Gilliland, the Cinderella kid of a few years ago when he beat the big guys in a Nationwide Series race that directly led to a Sprint Cup job, would up third after a crackup.

Regan Smith, another driver who turned heads for his ability to negotiate the two-car Daytona draft, finished seventh, again after a mishap. In his debut with Richard Childress Racing, Paul Menard finished ninth after a couple of his teammates were sidelined by engine failure.

Yes, I know several of the top contenders left the race because of incidents not of their making. But, as they say, that’s racing. This sort of thing has happened before and will happen again.

— I admit there was plenty of drama and excitement in the Daytona 500. I think it was good stuff for racing fans and, especially, television.

The new “June bug” style of drafting is appreciated by some and loathed by others. By now you know some of the scenarios it can create.

For example, there’s potential overheating (and thus engine failure), the fact that the driver pushing can’t see a thing and is at the mercy of the one in front of him, and spotters, and that the cars, rubbing front and rear bumpers, are so close that if the one in front checks up for any reason, all hell can break loose.

I have difficulties with a couple of things.

At Daytona, drivers no longer communicated solely with their crew chiefs or spotters, as it used to be. They do so with just about everyone on the track.

It’s done so they can, among other things, create favorable drafting situations. A driver can ask another if they can hook up. If turned down he can ask another.

Even in a two-car draft drivers can tell each other what they should do, such as the time to make the “swap” so the one doing the pushing can pass to gain fresh air.

Maybe I’m wrong but it appears to me that to be able to work with a rival whom you are supposed to beat is out of sorts in a sport where it is every man for himself and to work solely with his team.

Yes, I know teams have communicated for years. But it was done crew chief to crew chief, or spotter to spotter, and then transmitted to the driver.

Drivers simply didn’t talk to each other, much less reveal what each should do.

I can only surmise that this year’s Daytona 500 made it that way.

— There were a record 74 lead changes in the Daytona 500. It will go in the books.

But, I ask you, if a driver who is leading makes the “swap” with the guy behind him and he’s the one who crosses the finish line first, did he really take the lead?

Seems to me he was GIVEN the lead. He didn’t TAKE it. We saw a lot of that in Daytona.

I know it seems trivial. But to me there’s a difference between being given something rather than earning it.

Those are just a few of my thoughts. Yours, by all means, are most certainly welcome.

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