Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ NASCAR lumbers along

by Gordon Kirby
No matter how you slice it this was a good year for NASCAR. Not a great year by any means, but a good year. TV ratings--the most important measuring point of course--were up almost ten percent and there was a refreshing championship battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards which was a healthy tonic after five years of well-deserved but rather tiresome domination by Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports.

On the other side of the coin crowds continue to dwindle at many races. At some tracks the swathes of empty seats are shocking to take in and it will be interesting to see if and when this trend bottoms out. Selling tickets is a tough proposition in todayís economy and itís difficult to see the climate improving in the immediate future.

Of course, this environment places plenty of pressure on NASCARís two, competing publicly-traded track-owning companies ISC and SMI to perform as required by their stockholders. Longterm, unless they can begin to once again fill some of those empty seats, NASCAR, ISC, SMI and their stakeholders surely have a problem on their hands.

© Nigel Kinrade Autostock
Meanwhile, Tony Stewart is a great antidote for those who loath five-time champion Jimmie Johnsonís metronomic professionalism. Brash and outspoken, Stewart has had his run-ins with NASCAR and the media and is often ready to offer a jibe or dig at anyone who rubs him the wrong the way. Since becoming a team owner in 2009 heís a little more buttoned-up, but only barely.

Heís still a slightly overweight, pudgy plain-talking Indiana boy who loves to race anything. He owns a pair of midget and sprint car teams and three Midwestern dirt tracks, including the legendary Eldora Speedway. Stewart is a true enthusiast with a big fan following and at 40 as an owner/driver heís in the prime years of his career.

Until the Chase this was shaping up as a poor year for Stewart with no wins in the first 26 regular season races. Prior to the Chase he criticized his team and crew chief Darian Grubb but driver and team bounced back to win five of the Chaseís ten races.

Stewart/Haasís chassis and engines are supplied by Hendrick Motorsports of course and these major components have been keys in the teamís emergence as a race-winning and championship-contending operation. Teammate Ryan Newman has been nothing like as competitive as Stewart this year. Newman won one race and made the Chase but thereís not much more one can say about him.

Carl Edwards was relentlessly consistent this year and thatís always the key to winning any NASCAR title. He won only one race in the regular season but led the points most of the way. The Roush Fenway Fords were very strong in some races, less so in others, but Edwards ran in the top ten more consistently than anyone else. He didnít win any Chase races but took three seconds and two thirds during the Chase segment and finished in the top ten in nine of the ten Chase races.

In recent years Edwards has become one of NASCARís best pitchmen. Heís taken naturally to the job and established himself as one of the sportís most well-known names. Yet a few weeks ago Roush Fenway was still short of selling a full sponsorship budget for 2012 and this has been a tough year commercially for the team. The loss of longtime sponsor UPS means David Raganís car has been axed and as many as 100 Roush employees, including some from the engine shop, will lose their jobs in the coming weeks.

What can you say about Roush Fenwayís two other drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle? Both have their good days but often theyíre just also-rans. Kenseth is a former champion who won three races this year and made the Chase. Biffle failed to win a race or make the Chase.

After winning an unprecedented five championships in a row Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports had a slightly off year in 2011 although each of Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase. Both Johnson and Gordon won races and Gordon enjoyed his strongest season in some years. Earhardt failed to win any races but at least he made this yearís Chase. He also signed a longterm contract to continue with Hendrickís powerhouse operation through 2015.

© Nigel Kinrade Autostock
Veteran Mark Martin continued in Hendrickís fourth car but will be replaced next year by Kasey Kahne who brings crew chief Kenny Francis with him. Kahne is an excellent driver and should make Hendrickís four-car team even stronger. Expect Johnson, Gordon, Kahne and Earnhardt to make next yearís Chase and for one or two of them to contend for the championship.

In his tenth year with Richard Childressís Chevrolet team Kevin Harvick won four races and led the championship for much of the season. But Harvick couldnít score when it counted nor could teammates Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard although Menard did win the Brickward 400. Bowyer is departing RCR after six years for Michael Waltripís Toyota team.

Kyle Busch remained NASCARís most mercurial driver at the wheel of one of Joe Gibbsís three Toyotas. Possibly the most talented man in the field Busch can be irresistible but he continues to make mistakes and get himself in trouble. Kyle won four Cup races in 2011 and continued as a star in all three of NASCARís major series. But his record of failure in the Chase is sobering and we will see if his temper tantrum in crashing Ron Hornaday at Texas serves as a turning point in his career or just another chapter of Kyle missing the wake-up call.

Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano in Gibbsís other cars ran well on occasion but without any consistency. After challenging for the championship last year Hamlinís 2011 season was disappointing while Logano still has a long way to go although his raw ability is obvious.

Roger Penskeís Dodge-equipped NASCAR team also had their days in the sun this year with both veteran and former champion Kurt Busch and talented newcomer Brad Keselowski. Busch won a couple of races and made the Chase but had to be reminded from time to time by ĎThe Captainí to keep his mind on the game. Keselowski won three races and also made the Chase in his second year with Penske. A third-generation stock car racer Keselowski appears to have a great future ahead of him.

Former Indy 500 winner and IRL champion Sam Hornish was demoted from Penskeís Cup team to a part-time role in the Nationwide Series this year. But Hornish finally came through to score his first NASCAR win in the Nationwide race at Phoenix this month. Penske has announced that Hornish will run a full Nationwide program next year.

Richard Petty Motorsports enjoyed something of a renaissance this year with Marcos Ambrose scoring his first Cup win at Watkins Glen and A.J. Allmendinger running well in quite a few races. It will be interesting to see if the Ford-equipped RPM and its pair of enthusiastic former open-wheel racers can continue to make progress. The Wood Brothers, NASCARís other grandee team, won the Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne for the feel-good story of the year. Bayne ran a partial schedule this year, which is to the Woodsí liking, and also ran the Nationwide Series.

© Tyler Barrick Autostock USA
It was a disappointing year for Earnhardt-Ganassiís pair of Chevrolets with neither Juan-Pablo Montoya nor Jamie McMurray making the Chase or threatening to win any races. The team seemed to be on an upward climb in recent years with Montoya often running well and McMurray winning last yearís Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Will they bounce back next year?

After five years in NASCAR the Red Bull team apparently is out of business. Kasey Kahne was able to win for Red Bull at Phoenix but at this stage no buyer is waiting in the wings.

One of the healthier NASCAR teams is Michael Waltripís Toyota operation. Clint Bower joins Waltripís team for 2012, replacing David Reutimann, while Martin Truex seems in solid shape with sponsor NAPA. Of course Waltrip himself is the ultimate NASCAR pitchman and television personality and enjoys an enthusiastic partner in London-based amateur road racer Rob Kauffman.

NASCAR enjoys a strong pool of young talent thanks to its well-defined ladder system with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne showing their talent in the Nationwide Series and Austin Dillon, James Buescher, Cole Whitt and Nelson Piquet Jr. looking good in the Truck series.

New Nationwide-like noses and sheet metal will arrive in the Cup series in 2013 as NASCAR tries to get away from the spec car syndrome and recapture some individual brand identity which was essential to stock car racingís appeal for many decades. Of course, fuel injection arrives next year and so too does Danica Patrick who will run full-time in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports and part-time in ten Cup races with Stewart/Haas.

It will be interesting to see what impact Patrick has on NASCAR as it struggles to regain its hard-core audience and tries to attract more women, Hispanics and other minorities. It used to be all about the racing, but weíre told that itís a different world today in which marketing is king. As always, time will tell.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved