The Grand Finale

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2011 by Jordan Anders

So the most bittersweet week of the year is here for me and millions of race fans. “Ford Championship Weekend” in Homestead begins tonight with the Camping World Truck Series finale and runs through Sunday’s sure-to-be-thrilling finish of the Sprint Cup season. With all the excitement surrounding the crowning of three brand-new champions, it always sort of clouds the sad fact that once the weekend is over, there won’t be any cars on the track in actual competition for three months.

But that’s to be worried about on Sunday night, when the lights are shut off at Homestead. For now, we can look ahead to the weekend’s three events and the probable champions:

Trucks: Austin Dillon needs to finish 17th (give or take) to clinch his first Truck Series title. While that may sound simple enough – especially given how strong that team has been – let’s not forget 2003, when Brendan Gaughan went into Homestead with a similar lead. He was collected in an accident and finished 29th, losing the championship to Travis Kvapil. So Dillon still has to be on his toes, or James Buescher and Johnny Sauter will be hot on his heels.

Barring something major, though, I would expect Dillon to wrap it up and hoist the Truck title high above his black #3 truck in what should prove to be an emotional celebration.

Nationwide: This title hunt had all the potential to be just as exciting as the Trucks, but Jason Leffler took care of that when he punted Elliott Sadler into the fence last Saturday in Phoenix. Whether intentional or not, Leffler’s blunder made it essentially a one-horse race heading to sunny Florida, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. now has to basically just take the green flag and not hit anything and he will be crowned champion. While the finish of the year will be anti-climatic, Stenhouse has earned this title. He won twice on the year – sweeping the races at Iowa – and has consistently been one of, if not the best Nationwide-only driver in the field all year.

Roush Fenway has, astonishingly, still struggled to put sponsors on that car even with it seemingly destined to be a champion. Here’s hoping that Stenhouse’s presumed clinching of the title will help that.

Cup: Of course, the main course of this weekend’s three-course motorsports meal is the Sprint Cup Ford 400 on Sunday. Carl Edwards enters with the slimmest of slim leads, holding a scant three-point advantage of a surging Tony Stewart. Time and time again in this Chase, I have looked for Stewart’s team to falter, and they have done anything but. The momentum is clearly in his favor right now, although Edwards showed with a strong performance at Phoenix last week that he’s not just going to roll over and allow Stewart to steal what would be Edwards’ first title without a fight.

Even with all the momentum Stewart has, I can’t help but feel that at Homestead, it’s still Edwards’ title to lose. His 5.6 average finish at Homestead is far better than any other active driver, and while he has played into the light banter and lighter prods of Stewart this weekend in the media, he has also shown that he is as driven as ever with the title so close at hand. It won’t be easy, but I think Edwards walks out of Florida with his first Cup crown.

We’ll see how the weekend plays out, but regardless, it’s going to be a banner one for NASCAR, and will hopefully be a great way to end what has been a fantastic season of competition.

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Smoke still rising

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2011 by Jordan Anders

At the beginning of the day Sunday, the talk of the Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway was NASCAR’s decision to park Kyle Busch as punishment for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday in Friday night’s Truck race.

By the end of the day, though, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was all but forgotten, and a former JGR star had stolen the show with a dominant performance, part of a resurgence that could propel him to a third Cup title.

Tony Stewart spanked the field Sunday, leading over half the race on his was to his fourth win in eight Chase races. I have tried to find every excuse to not jump on the Smoke bandwagon, namely because he had not been able to show the consistency needed to capitalize whenever he had put up strong performances earlier this season.

Stewart won the first two races of the Chase, then followed up those performances with a dismal 25th-place showing at Dover in race 3. But Sunday was the first time since March that Stewart has been that strong over the course of an entire event.

He shaved five points off the lead of Carl Edwards, who finished right on Stewart’s heels at TMS is second spot. Edwards was strong at Texas, but never showed the strength that Stewart had as he raced off for his fourth win of the season.

These last two races could possibly rival last season’s ending, when three drivers battled it out to the end in Homestead. This year’s race will be a two-horse race (assuming nothing catastrophic happens at Phoenix next week) but promises to be just as exciting with both drivers performing at such high levels.

Phoenix will be pivotal for Stewart, who is heading into a race having won two straight for the second time in less than two months. But for him to have any chance of stealing the title from Edwards at Homestead, he’ll have to make sure not to repeat that Dover performance. That dreadful 25th-place run is the only thing that is keeping me from fully jumping on board Stewart’s team, as I still think it’s Edwards’ title to lose.

But Stewart’s performance Sunday at Texas was more of a statement than anything he’s done all year, given that it was Edwards’ best track and was seen as a chance for Edwards to gain some breathing room between he and the pack. Stewart not only saw to it that that didn’t happen, but he narrowed the gap heading to Phoenix, a major unknown given the repaving and reconfiguration that has happened there since the Cup race in April.

This is the ending of the year that NASCAR had to be clamoring for: a close race with a guarantee of a champion not named Jimmie Johnson. Edwards and Stewart are almost assuredly going to put on a great show for the next two week, and the 14 team’s performance at Texas, Edwards and his team better be on their A-game when they roll into the desert.

NASCAR Got This One Right

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2011 by Jordan Anders

Behind the wheel, Kyle Busch is perhaps the most talented driver in NASCAR today. There’s no questioning that. But for years now, Busch’s biggest obstacle between himself and real superstardom is his remarkable penchant for childish behavior whenever things don’t go his way.

Case in point was Friday night. There was nothing dirty or overtly wrong with what went down initially between Busch and Ron Hornaday. The two were side-by-side when they came up alongside a slower truck. When the two of them went to the outside, Hornaday’s truck got loose and got up into Busch, causing both to slide up into the fence. Unfortunate? Yes. Dirty? In no way.

But what Busch did in response was a microcosm of why he will never be able to ascend to the position of true ambassador for the sport like Carl Edwards or other guys like that. The way he drove into the corner behind Hornaday -under caution, mind you- and drove Hornaday head-on into the outside wall was not only childish and immature, it was unbelievably dangerous, and absolutely warranted the suspension that NASCAR handed down Saturday morning.

Busch was clearly thinking of no one but himself. He ruined Hornaday’s chances at contending for the Truck Series title. He put his sponsors and owner Joe Gibbs in a bind, as they now, once again, have to answer for Busch’s childish behavior. All of that thinking was plenty of ammo for NASCAR to sit him for the rest of the weekend, a decision which I applaud wholeheartedly.

The question now is what happens going forward. Team owner Gibbs and Mars Inc., who sponsors the 18 car, made it clear last year they weren’t going to accept any more bad publicity from their driver. I wouldn’t be shocked if Mars put pressure on Gibbs to yank Busch from the car for the final two races as well, a decision that I think may do the immature driver a world of good.

Busch has talent coming out of his ears, but simply has been unable to overcome his inability to cope when things don’t go his way. There’s a difference between being driven and being petulant, and Busch has yet to find that happy medium. He’s been full-time in the Sprint Cup Series since 2005, and one might think that if he were going to mature, it would have happened by now.

Whether or not this will be the tipping point for him to finally grow up and begin acting like an adult remains to be seen. But NASCAR did the right thing in sitting Busch this weekend and letting the gravity of what he did sink in.

I’m all for hating to lose, but what Busch did Friday night was borderline criminal. Kudos to NASCAR for seeing that and being able to draw the line.

They say that the worst feeling in NASCAR is seeing someone else drive your car. I say that this may be exactly what Busch needs to convince him that if he ever wants to be a champion and a true star in the Cup series, the time is now for him to grow up and learn to keep his emotions in check.

‘Dega Disappointment

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2011 by Jordan Anders

It has literally taken me from Sunday to Wednesday to formulate my thoughts on this past weekend’s “race” at Talladega. It honestly depresses me a bit that I used to look forward to Talladega so much (and I’m sure this is the case with many other fans as well) only to be saddled with the garbage we saw on Sunday.

I’m not going to go into the usual bulleted list of what I saw on Sunday. Clint Bowyer won, but that will be largely forgotten. Kevin Harvick’s Chase chances took a huge hit when he was caught up in a crash with Kyle Busch, AJ Allmendinger, and others. Carl Edwards somehow came up with an 11th place finish that, given Harvick’s troubles, may very well wrap up the championship for himself and the 99 team barring some absolute catastrophe.

But what I really took away from Sunday was the absolute joke that the whole event turned into. At first, this whole “tandem” racing thing was intriguing, causing teams to add other drivers’ radio channels to their dials so that their driver could speak to someone they would potentially work with on the racetrack.

But ESPN’s Terry Blount said it best: This is “Jersey Shore” on wheels. This whole thing of pairing up and making deals and leaving other drivers angry because you decided to work with someone else is just comical. The racing is boring and the complaining is petty. No one tunes in to watch Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and other big names ride in the back nose-to-tail, 25 seconds or more off the lead.

NASCAR has some serious work to do here. If the answer is changing the noses of the cars so that this deal of pushing the guy in front of you is impossible, they need to get on it. Honestly, changing the cars is about the only thing I can see working here. Otherwise, all these nickel-and-dime changes are going to last only until the drivers can find a way to circumvent them. Case in point: the engine pop-off valve. NASCAR made changes so that the engines would overheat and spit water at lower temperatures. The drivers’ answer: they perfected pushing the car in front of them while being able to hang the right side of the nose out from behind the car in front, therefore being able to push and get cool air to the engine at the same time.

It’s going to take some serious changes to stop this nonsense. The Daytona 500 is their Superbowl, the race that is supposed to set the stage for the upcoming season. Unfortunately for them, without changes, fans will be treated to this garbage in February in the biggest event of the year. Fans are not likely to be very receptive to that, which doesn’t bode well for the sport. It’s on the sanctioning body to fix this. If they don’t, it could definitely cost them.

Another loss…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by Jordan Anders

I’ve been off the grid for a few days after a great vacation with my girlfriend and her family. We spent Sunday afternoon at the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, NC (an amazing place, by the way). At one point, while we were breaking for a bit, I checked Twitter to find it abuzz with news of a spectacular crash during the IndyCar finale. Over the next couple of hours, I stayed glued to my phone and Twitter through the news that Dan Wheldon had been killed in the crash.

I’m not here to try to give insight into how Wheldon’s death affected anyone in the racing industry because I’m not a part of the racing industry. What I do on this blog is write things from the point of view that I see them: the fan’s perspective. That’s what I’m going to do here.

Losing Dan Wheldon is a crushing blow to IndyCar and the racing world in general. He looked like he was ripped straight out of a magazine with his looks, he was witty when he was in front of the camera and, most importantly, he could drive the hell out of one of those indycars. He was loved by essentially everyone in the sport, as evidenced by the scene on pit road during the 5-lap salute the drivers carried out in his honor after his death.

The circumstances surrounding Wheldon’s death are as surreal as they were tragic. Consider the fact that he would not have even been in that race had it not been for that ridiculous bounty…I mean, $5 million bonus…that Randy Bernard put out there for a non-series regular to win the race. Consider the irony that Wheldon had been the lead test driver for the new IndyCar chassis set to debut next year, a chassis that includes a new configuration to cover the back tires and prevent cars from ramping over other cars….exactly the way Wheldon did Sunday. Consider the cruel twist-of-fate that Wheldon had just Sunday morning signed a contract to replace Danica Patrick at Andretti Autosport and return full-time to a competitive team in the series he had conquered in 2005.

I always said that Geoff Bodine’s Truck series crash at Daytona is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in racing, but this crash trumped that ten-fold. Whether IndyCar should have been racing at such a high-speed, high-banked track as Vegas is up for debate, but now is not the time. The accident, the circumstances, the result, there is no blame to be placed. The racing world is mourning the loss of one of it’s own, and one of the greatest to ever sit in an Indycar.

As race fans, we attach ourselves to these drivers and give them our unwavering devotion. Just as drivers assume the risk involved with racing, we fans do the same. We know and accept that, at any moment, our favorite driver could be the one in Wheldon’s shoes this past Sunday. But it doesn’t make it any less painful, for his family or those of us who cheered for him.

I don’t claim to be a diehard Indycar fan, but I would say my interest falls somewhere above “passing” and below “hardcore.” I picked Dan Wheldon as my favorite driver back in 2004, mainly because he was British (which I thought was cool) and he was consistently running up front. Anytime I caught an Indycar race, I was pulling for Dan.

I never understood why he had so much trouble finding a ride this season. Now I think it’s poetic that he spent the year working out the kinks of the new car that will hopefully bring entertainment to Indycar fans for years to come. I think that will become a big part of his legacy, just as his two Indy 500 wins and his 2005 championship are.

So Sunday was an especially sad day for me, the same way it was an especially sad day for all of auto racing. We lost a great champion, but he will never be forgotten…

 

Same old song…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2011 by Jordan Anders

Race 4 of the Chase at Kansas Speedway has come and gone, and the championship standings have taken even more of a shuffle than last week.  The key factors coming out of Kansas:

  • Honestly, you didn’t really think that Jimmie Johnson wasn’t going to step up and take this thing by the horns, did you? Granted, I didn’t expect him to dominate like he did today, but I’m not the least bit surprised. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again, it blows my mind how quickly people were writing that team off after two poor races to start the Chase. They’ve only responded by dominating the last two races and jumping from 10th to 3rd in the standings. Add to that the fact that the Cup series is headed to Charlotte next week, and there’s a very good chance that Johnson will be in complete control when the Chase reaches the halfway point. Looks like the 48 team winning a record sixth-consecutive Sprint Cup title isn’t as out-of-the-question as people were hoping.
  • Yet another rehash of something I said last week, but Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick both continue to impress me. Both appeared to be headed towards finishes outside the top-15 at multiple points today. But both were able to rebound and, low and behold, they finished 5th and 6th respectively. I keep saying that these are the days that prove that both of these teams are championship material. It became the 48 team’s M.O. when they were driving to five-straight titles. Winning is great, but the way you win championships is to finish 5th with a 15th-place car, like Edwards did today, or 6th-with a 16th place car, a la Harvick today. Those two teams aren’t going anywhere.
  • A team that did go somewhere today was Jeff Gordon’s. The 24 team (who I picked to win this whole thing, mind you) is effectively done after his engine blew with three laps left today. That’s a shame, but that team looked great for a lot of this season. Gordon is rejuvenated with Alan Gustafson on the pit box for him, and with this first “learning” year out of the way, that team will come back solid in 2012 and compete for the championship again.

As much as I hate to say it, I would not be shocked by a repeat performance next Saturday night in Charlotte from Jimmie Johnson. He used to be the man to beat everytime he showed up there, and while the 48 team hasn’t dominated in recent years like they did in the past, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone carrying more momentum than that team. That’s going to make them hard to beat on Saturday night.

Dover thoughts

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2011 by Jordan Anders

Race 3 of the 2011 Chase is in the books, and it was a wild one. These are the points that struck me today…

  • I was certain (which you will know if you got here via my Twitter account) that Jimmie Johnson was the car to beat today. So I was very surprised when Kurt Busch dusted Johnson on that final restart and drove off to earn the win. I’m still not convinced that Busch has what it takes to not mentally melt down whenever his car isn’t to his liking, although today was a huge step in the right direction. And those who thought Johnson and Chad Knaus were out of the hunt for this championship: I want some of whatever you’re on.
  • My original pick – Jeff Gordon – has done nothing to show that he is the favorite for this championship. My 2-A and 2-B options both impressed me today for different reasons. Kevin Harvick took a mediocre day and turned it into a solid finish to take the points lead back (or a share of it, anyway). But today was a championship-caliber performance for Carl Edwards. That team had the fastest car for most of the day today, but Edwards slipped up with a costly pit road speeding penalty. He drove about as hard as you will ever see anyone drive to get back to 3rd at the end of the day, and that fighting back for that finish reaffirmed for me that Edwards and Bob Osborne have what it takes to overcome mistakes and contend for the title. That team has a lot of momentum right now, and I think they’re going to be very involved in the direction this Chase goes.
  • Those two straight wins almost had me thinking that Tony Stewart was back in this title hunt. Almost. Stewart’s Dover effort was a disaster. At least guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski had excuses for their less-than-stellar finishes. Stewart was nowhere near competitive on Sunday, and looked much more like the team that he said didn’t deserve a spot in the Chase about a month ago than the team that had won two straight coming into Dover. He still sits 3rd in points after today, but that team has got to put this out of their mind and try to get back on track next Sunday at Kansas if they want to stay in the title mix.
  • I’m begging for a break for Junior Nation. Junior, at times, had one of the fastest cars at Dover. That freak deal with the sway bar mount in the early stages could have derailed their day, but they caught a lucky caution (weird, right?) and got that fixed and fought their way all the way back to 12th, only to see a right front go flat and relegate him to a 24th place finish. Just when that team gets things going their way, something comes to screw it up. Junior and his countless fans (including yours truly) have got to be wondering when that team is finally going to get some good luck going their way and build some momentum. They’re going to need it now for Junior to remain a legitimate contender in the Chase from here on out.

Those are my thoughts from Dover this week. On to Kansas next Sunday.

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