Sunday, December 26, 2010

From Where I Sit: 2010 NASCAR Year in Review

Looking back on 2010, the NASCAR images that are emblazoned in my mind are those I witnessed in person.

Richard Petty and Bobby Allison running into each other before the Homestead race.

A young Dale Jr. fan telling Jimmie Johnson she'd switch drivers if he'd only sign her hat (which he promptly did with a smile).

Tony Stewart handing his Coke bottle to a little No. 14 fan after driver introductions at Talladega.

My Mom meeting Joey Logano at the Homestead Tweetup.

Dancing with my nephews on the Daytona infield to the music of Zac Brown Band.

My cousin Michael finally getting Dale Earnhardt Jr's autograph.

I've discovered that NASCAR is a highly personal sport.  Sure, there are the driver feuds, photo finishes and dramatic races that the collective remembers. But the moments that mean the most are those that are yours.  That you shared with family.  That you enjoyed with friends.

I was fortunate enough to make a slew of NASCAR memories this year.  Above are just a few of them.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The First NASCAR Day of Christmas: A Win for the Number Three

Dale Earnhardt Jr's Nationwide Series win in the No. 3 Wrangler car at Daytona was one of the brightest moments of the year.

The buildup to the race was unprecedented and the event itself was fraught with emotional weight and fan expectations.

It could easily have gone very badly.

But in the end, Dale Jr. and his cousin Tony Eury, Jr. reunited once more to bring one of the most recognizable paint schemes, and the famous number in NASCAR history, back to Victory Lane.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime night. And it gave Junior Nation something to cheer about, in what was an otherwise lackluster season.

So as Dale Jr. fans dream of team "Earntarte" and how their driver will have a winning 2011, I wish you all Merry Christmas. 

The best present of all? The Daytona 500 is only fifty-six days away ...

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Second NASCAR Day of Christmas: Two Fighting Jeffs

Sometimes the cosmic force behind NASCAR gives fans a gift that is so unexpectedly wonderful, it lives in the annals of racing lore for years.

And the fight between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton at Texas Motor Speedway is one of those gifts.

An unlikely pair of enemies, these two were applauded by fans for having the guts to "have at it" face to face (and not face to camera as other drivers often do).

There went Gordon, stomping down the track after his smashup with Burton, like a man on a mission.  And he didn't waste time.  Upon reaching the object of his anger, there was a leap, a shove, and what looked like an attempted hair pulling.

The moment made for darn good TV, a colorful highlights reel, and precious fodder for bloggers and pundits alike.

Here's hoping that the "have at it boys" mandate gives fans even more such moments in 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Third NASCAR Day of Christmas: Three Rowdy Wins

In many ways 2010 was a banner year for Kyle Busch.

He got engaged to Samantha Sarcinella. He started his own race team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. He finished eighth in the Chase, and he won three Cup races all told.

But what iced the cake on Rowdy's eventful season was his historic performance at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.

Busch predicted he would win all three races - and he did just that.

On Wednesday, he won the Camping World Truck Series event. Friday, he took the Nationwide Series checkers. Then Saturday he sealed the trifecta with a Sprint Cup victory.

It's a feat of which no other driver can boast - sweeping all three national series races in the same weekend.

In fact, it was such an accomplishment, that the brooms in Victory Lane inspired a musical ode to Kyle Busch entitled "Bristol Sweep" - which is a big improvement over the guitar smash song of 2009 ...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fourth NASCAR Day of Christmas: Four for Ganassi

When Jamie McMurray returned to the Earnhardt-Ganassi fold, he brought a wave of good karma with him.

Coming off a lackluster 2009, McMurray was visibly thrilled to have a full-time ride in 2010.  And his EGR homecoming proved a boon not only to McMurray's career, but to team owner Chip Ganassi's as well.

Ol' Jamie Mac didn't just win for Ganassi - he won the biggest, most prestigious races on the schedule.

McMurray kickstarted the season with a tearsoaked victory at the Daytona 500.  His next win came at Indy's venerable Brickyard.  He then snagged the trophy at Charlotte Motor Speedway - eight years after winning his first Cup race there, also with Ganassi.

Talk about being the comeback kid.

And McMurray wasn't the only star in Ganassi's crown.  Juan Pablo Montoya added to the team's win column with his dominating victory at Watkins Glen. 

Montoya led 74 of 90 laps at the Glen, rebounding from two weeks of poor pit calls and a tiff with his crew chief, which had kept him out of contention during previous races.

My NASCAR New Year's prediction?  Look for both McMurray and Montoya to make the chase in 2011.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Fifth NASCAR Day of Christmas: Five in a Row

Jimmie Johnson celebrates each of his five championship wins - from 2006 to 2010.

Cale Yarborough didn't do it.

Dale Earnhardt didn't do it.

Even King Petty didn't do it.

But Jimmie Johnson, a kid from El Cajon, Calif., did.

Johnson's five consecutive Cup championships are unprecedented and unparalleled.  And with his monumental come-from-behind points win in 2010, the driver has cemented his place in NASCAR history.

And the racing world thought four in a row was impressive.

Of course, some fans may not like that Johnson has dominated the sport for half a decade. But that doesn't change the fact that Johnson is the real deal.  And his crew chief is none too shabby either.

Johnson and Chad Knaus may well be unbeatable. And 2011 may just bring win number six.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Sixth NASCAR Day of Christmas: Six Weeks Suspension

Bowyer went from one to done after his car failed
inspection post-Loudon.
In NASCAR,  fortune can turn on a dime.

And no team knows that better than the No. 33 team of Clint Bowyer.

The Richard Childress Racing team went from the highest of highs (winning the first race of the Chase at Loudon) to the lowest of lows (failing inspection and getting docked 150 points).

Per the official NASCAR press release:

"The No. 33 team was found to be in violation of Sections 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing); 12-4-J (any determination by NASCAR officials that the race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules); and 20-3 (car body location specifications in reference to the certified chassis did not meet NASCAR-approved specifications) of the 2010 NASCAR Rule Book."

In addition to the points deficit, crew chief Shane Wilson was suspended for six weeks for the infraction and put on probabation until Dec. 31.

The stiff penalty effectively turned Bowyer and team from a possible championship contender into just another also-ran.

And although Richard Childress fought the judgment with his infamous wrecker defense, NASCAR capitulated not.  The ruling stood.

But you gotta give credit to Bowyer. After his initial impassioned response, the driver didn't waste time crying over lost points. 

Instead, he pulled off a second-place result at Fontana, and went on to win Talladega in a virtual photo finish.

And while dwelling on "could have beens" is often an exercise in futility, I can't help but wonder how Bowyer and Wilson's season would have ended had the penalty never been incurred.

Something tells me they would have finished a heckuva lot better than tenth.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Seventh NASCAR Day of Christmas: Seventh Place for Stewart

Stewart takes a break with the Office Depot Foundation’s 2010 “Teddy B. Caring”
holiday bear. The Office Depot Foundation donates a portion of proceeds from sales
of the bear to help children and families in need around the world.
Photo Credit: MATTER/Edelman for Office Depot Racing
For the second consecutive year as a driver/owner Tony Stewart made the Chase.

Not only did he make the Chase - he cracked the top ten.

Smoke ended the year in seventh spot - with two wins, nine top fives and two poles. He led more total laps than third-place finisher Kevin Harvick. And he notched 17 top 10 finishes to boot.

It took Stewart a little longer to find his groove this year - his first win didn't come 'til Atlanta Motor Speedway in September. 

But in what may have been the highlight of his year, Stewart smoked the field at Fontana, giving him his first win at Auto Club Speedway in 19 tries.

That victory leaves Las Vegas and Darlington as the only active tracks where Smoke has yet to take the checkers.  Not a bad short list for Smoke to tackle in 2011 ...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Eighth NASCAR Day of Christmas: 8 NASCAR Babies

Ryan and Chrissie Newman
welcomed Brooklyn Sage
on Nov. 18, 2010.
In 2010, the Sprint Cup drivers' lot turned into Romper Room.

And it's not because Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski got into a play fight.

There was a bona fide baby boom in NASCAR that set this season apart.  At last count, a whopping seven babies were born to drivers and their wives - and there's one due at the end of this year.

1. Jimmie Johnson and wife Chandra welcomed Genevieve Marie. 

2. To Jeff Gordon and Ingrid was born Leo Benjamin

3. Mr. and Mrs. Carl Edwards said hello to little Anne Edwards.

4. Elliott and Amanda Sadler became the proud parents of Wyatt Herman Fritts Sadler. 

5.  Juan Pablo and Connie Montoya added baby Manuela to their family. 

6.  Ryan and Krissie Newman welcomed Brooklyn Sage. 

7. Carter Scott was born to Jamie and Christy McMurray.

8. Finally, Sam Hornish Jr. and his wife Crystal are expecting to end the year with the birth of their second child.

And for the record, all those skeptics who claimed Johnson would be adversely affected by the stress of fatherhood, now don't have a leg to stand on.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Ninth NASCAR Day of Christmas: 9 Car-a-Swappin'


That's the word that best describes the state of Richard Petty Motorsports in 2010.

It was a tough year for The King and those in his employ.  They went from four cars to two.  Lost their primo driver.  And they suffered through layoffs and cutbacks in the process.

But there is one bright spot on what has lately been a dim horizon - and that's the 100-watt smile of Marcos Ambrose.

Ambrose will drive the No. 9 Ford for RPM next season.  He takes the wheel from Aric Almirola, who drove the car when Kasey Kahne made a late-season jump to Red Bull Racing.

And Ambrose's infectious personality and determination to succeed may be just the shot in the arm the organization needs to regain momentum.

"I feel like I've got all the ingredients I need," Ambrose told the Associated Press in August. "I wanted to eliminate any question marks about the stuff around me and people around me."

"I feel like I can win four championships like Jimmie Johnson has done," he continued.

Time will tell if the racer from down under can top the five-time champ.

But one thing is certain - Richard Petty Motorsports is back in the game.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Tenth NASCAR Day of Christmas: 10 Years of Harvick

Kevin Harvick celebrated his tenth year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series in 2010.

And boy, what a year it was.

Harvick was the regular season champ and the perennial fan favorite.  When the Chase began, he kept fans' hopes high that a Richard Childress team would knock the dynastic No. 48 off its pedestal.

And, as always, Harvick kept things interesting.

He tangled with Joey Logano on track and off.  He hit Denny Hamlin in practice, after Hamlin called out his teammate Clint Bowyer for being a cheater.

But the fun didn't stop with Harvick's third-place Sprint Cup run.

Harvick also had a worthy year in both the Nationwide and Truck series- notching three wins in each and a sixth place finish in the Nationwide standings.

From all appearances, Harvick is set for another stellar year in 2011  - he'll be driving the Budweiser car for Richard Childress Racing.  And, just this week, he announced that former Formula One driver Nelson Piquet Jr. will drive for his truck team, Kevin Harvick Inc., next season.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Boys Are Back in Town

Cup cars hit the new pavement at Daytona for the first time Wednesday.

For the first time since Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag in the Coke Zero 400 on July 3, race cars were back on track at Daytona International Speedway.

Eighteen NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers kicked off the first day of a two-day Goodyear tire test on the new racing surface in advance of the 53rd annual Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday, Feb. 20.

The test was the first time race cars turned laps on the new asphalt of Daytona, which was repaved for only the second time in its history.

Among the drivers in attendance included:

· Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin

· Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch

· Roush Fenway’s Matt Kenseth and David Ragan

· Richard Childress Racing’s Jeff Burton and Paul Menard

·  Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya

· JTG Daugherty Racing’s Bobby Labonte

“It’s amazing the job that they did here,” said Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 champion. “It’s really smooth. It’s got a lot of grip. I think we learned a tremendous amount by being here. Not only did we get a chance to really see what we’re going to be dealing with here in February for the Daytona 500, but it gets us prepared for the test coming up in January.”

“They smoothed out all the bumps,” said Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 Daytona 500 champion. “The track is real smooth. It’s got a lot of grip. The track reminds me a lot like Talladega was like when they first finished it.

“The racing during the drafting was exciting and I think it is going to be a good show, a more exciting show for the fans because the cars are going to stay real tight on each other throughout entire runs.”

The Goodyear tire test will wrap up Thursday and is open to the public with free access to the Oldfield Grandstands through the lobby of the Daytona International Speedway ticket office.

The Eleventh NASCAR Day of Christmas: 11 Car-a-Spinnin'

The team works on the No. 11 car before the start
of the Ford 400 at Homestead.

In addition to "Jimmie Johnson Wins Fifth Consecutive Title," the headline following Homestead could well have been "The Mighty Denny Has Spun Out."

And though Denny's misstep made for a more dramatic race, it wasn't the cause of his failure to win the Chase crown.

His run for the championship started to sputter the week before Homestead.

Riding high and talking trash, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford entered the Kobalt Tools 500 with trophy expectations and a car that dominated most of the race.

But as events played out, it became clear that fuel mileage - not a sweet car - would be the key to a strong finish.

Unfortunately for Hamlin, Ford failed to tell his driver to save fuel. And while Hamlin ran wide open, fellow championship rivals Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick conserved enough Sunoco to make it 'til the end.

Result? Hamlin had to pit, while Johnson and Harvick had the staying power to finish - cutting Hamlin's points lead to just 15.

Hamlin was visibly discouraged after the checkers.

"It's pretty disappointing. We were in a good position going into next week," Hamlin said. "Good cars and all that, we had that today. It's tough to say what we've got to do. We had everything today. We had bad strategy at the end and it let those guys back in there."

So instead of a confident, swaggering Chase leader rolling into Homestead, Hamlin entered the Miami track a bundle of nerves.

His poor qualifying run didn't help - and the team couldn't get their mojo back all day long.

So while Hamlin's little spin didn't help his championship hopes - it wasn't the cause of the Fed Ex team's troubles.

Those can be blamed on a failure to communicate at Phoenix.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Twelfth NASCAR Day of Christmas: 12 Chasers Chasing

One of the best things about the 2010 season, was that the Sprint Cup Chase was the closest in Chase history. 

Twelve drivers didn't just make the Chase, they made the Chase exciting.

There were flying fists, fingers and fines.  There was high drama and low blows. And, to top it off, there was a reigning champ who came from behind to score his fifth championship in a row - a feat unparalleled in NASCAR history.

Clint Bowyer started the Chase with a win in New Hampshire  - only to be fined and penalized days later when his car failed post-race inspection.  The judgment punted the No. 33 from second to twelfth in the points.  And Bowyer's response to the penalty made "The Wrecker Defense" a motorsports byword.

Bowyer ended the year in 10th spot.

Then there was Kyle Busch.  Although Rowdy failed to produce a "W" during the Chase, he did make for some good TV with his flying one-finger salute on national television.  Busch finished the year in eighth place.

Kevin "Happy" Harvick brought the goods all year long. The regular season champ, he stayed in contention 'til the very end.  And though he finished in third, his message was heard throughout the NASCAR world - Richard Childress Racing is back.

Second-place finisher Denny Hamlin added a heap of racing drama to the Chase.  He started the Chase in the top seed after a win at Richmond.  He then lost the Chase lead, but stole it back from the No. 48 team with a win at Texas. 

And then the mind games and the verbal potshots began as Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford called Johnson and Chad Knaus the weaker team, vowing to beat the Lowe's dynasty. 

But words can come back to haunt you, and at Homestead, Johnson and company showed their strength while Denny spun out, ending his quest to win his first championship. 

Moral of the story? You better check yourself, before you wreck yourself.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Some NASCAR Holiday Reading: These Are a Few of My Favorite Blogs

While there are still a lot of worthy NASCAR blogs out there,
one of my favorites, NASCAR This Week, will go dark later this month.
There's one thing I love about the NASCAR off-season, and that's having more time to catch up on what other bloggers are up to.

There are the sites I read on a regular basis - and then there are those that I've just recently discovered. But what I've found across the board, is that there are a lot of great folks doing a lot of great work promoting the sport that they love.

I can't list every site worthy of a mention, but below are a few of my favorite NASCAR blogs. Be sure to check them out during your online reading rounds.

First, a clarification - my buddies at are much more than a blog. They broadcast four different podcasts - Over the Wall, Gas and Go, Hammer Down and Spotters Nest. Their team covers races like media pros and they're one of the few sites who have been awarded the honor of inclusion into the NASCAR Citizen Journalists Media Corp.

Another one of my favorite cyber spaces is NASCAR Ranting and Raving. It's chock full of stuff from editorial and interviews to cartoons and sound bites.

Skirts & Scuffs is another site I check on a regular basis. These ladies know their NASCAR and they're prolific posters - if it's happening in the sport, they've posted about it (or will be soon).

For a look at NASCAR from a fan's perspective, you can't beat Amy's Bad Groove. She's an unabashed Tony Stewart fangirl - and she has put together a darn good blog.

If you're on the outside looking in, then The NASCAR Insiders have your back. Their "Ask the Insiders Wednesday" gets my vote as the best weekly feature on the Net.

During the season, I'm a frequent visitor to The Spotter Stand. Their "Catch Can" feature is a great forum for fans. And when they hit the track, they take some fantastic photos.

And now for some sad news. My buddies at NASCAR This Week have ceased operations and will go offline later this month. With posts by the great Monte Dutton and frequent guest columns by bloggers (including yours truly), this was the most well-written NASCAR site on the Web. Period.

On a personal note, NASCAR This Week editor, David Cohea, supported me and gave me column space when I first started this blog, and I couldn't be more appreciative. He's also a fantastic editor and writer in his own right.

Godspeed - this chick will miss you!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A NASCAR Christmas List

Now that "Team Earntarte" is a reality, Junior fans  have reason
to call Christmas merry.
Logs are crackling in the fireplace.  Lights are flickering on the tree. And marshmallows are melting their gooey goodness into my hot chocolate.

It's the perfect night for writing a Christmas list.

Or better still, the perfect night for contemplating what gifts our favorite drivers and their fans might want - or need - for the holidays.

If I were Santa, here's what I'd bring the below NASCAR peeps in my big bag of presents come Christmas Eve:

Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton - If you're gonna "have at it boys", at least make it look somewhat threatening.  The Jeffs'  little dustup during the Chase was good TV - but I doubt it struck fear into the hearts of other drivers.  That's why I'm suggesting jolly ol' St. Nicholas bring the pair a little formal instruction in the art of hand-to-hand combat.

Jimmie Johnson - You might think that Johnson has all he'll ever need - a beautiful wife, a darling baby girl, five Sprint Cup championships and the smartest crew chief around. But that's where you're wrong.  This season it became clear that ol' Johnson is standing in the need of hair - or less of it.  Somebody give the man a haircut.  The scraggly look does not suit.

Junior Nation - When Rick Hendrick announced the formation of team "Earntarte" in November, Christmas came a little early for Junior Nation - and also for Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Request granted.

Kyle Busch - I know Rowdy has taken a lot of heat for his one-finger salute on national television, but what's a little more ribbing among fans? He claimed after being parked a lap that NASCAR was hampering his constitutional rights by denying him the right to express himself.  Turns out, he's correct. According to the U.S. Court system, "flipping the bird" is legally protected by the U.S. Constitution ... but NASCAR is a country unto itself and sometimes everyday laws just don't apply.  So in that case, perhaps Santa will leave the book "Beyond Anger" in Busch's stocking.

Brian Vickers - It'll be a gift to NASCAR fans to see Vickers back behind the wheel come the Daytona 500. Here's hoping Santa grants him a spot in next year's Chase to cement Vickers' long-awaited return.

Darrell Waltrip - When Waltrip failed to make the second class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his disappointment was palpable. Even those who weren't big fans of DW felt a little sorry for him. For Waltrip's sake, I hope Santa brings him the votes he needs to make the Hall of Fame's third class - nobody would be more appreciative of the honor.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Johnson Gets Even More "Perfect" - As If That Were Possible

His chase for the Sprint Cup may not have been perfect, but his rebound from a points deficit was about as flawless as you can get.

So it's only right that five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is one of the athletes featured in ESPN The Magazine's "The Perfect Issue," which is on newsstands now.

In the issue, Johnson joins top pros Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Charles Woodson and Maya Moore as they weigh in on what perfection means to them in “Meditations on Perfection.”

Plus in the issue's back-of-the-book poll, “Scale of 1 to 10,” athletes answer the question, “Did you pursue the right sport?”

· Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets: “Five. Sometimes I wish I had played baseball. I would have been a good pitcher.”

· Phil Hellmuth, poker player: “Ten. What other sport would I be good at? There’s not enough money in backgammon or chess.”

· Sergio Martinez, boxing middleweight: “One. I love soccer, but I want to be No. 1 and I wasn’t good enough to be No. 1 in soccer.”

But there's no point asking Johnson if he pursued the right sport - with five back-to-back championships to his credit, is there any doubt?