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

The Way It Is/ Who's hot in NASCAR this year

by Gordon Kirby
Last Saturday and Sunday provided a rare weekend off for NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup series. This momentary respite is followed by the full grunt of seventeen consecutive race weekends in a row from the Brickyard 400 through Homestead-Miami in November. Whatever your opinions about NASCAR you have to admit it's a hell of a daunting schedule with as deeply competitive a field as any form of racing has enjoyed in the sport's history.

This is the ninth year that NASCAR's championship will be decided by its 'Chase for the Cup' over the season's final ten races, starting this year at the Chicagoland Speedway in the middle of September. Howl as you might about the Chase it's certainly achieved the goal of keeping open the championship battle down to the year's final races. Last season the Chase provided Tony Stewart with an opportunity he would not have enjoyed under the old points system to score an inspired championship victory.

Nobody has shown any consistent dominance this year with Matt Kenseth leading the points all season after winning the Daytona 500, his only win so far in 2012. Despite taking the Sprint Cup title back in 2003 Kenseth excites few people as a possible 2012 champion particularly after deciding to leave Jack Roush's Roush-Fenway operation at the end of the season. He will be replaced next year by defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Kenseth turned 40 this year and has driven for Roush for his entire Cup career, starting in 1999. The Roush-Fenway Fords are often quick in restrictor plate races and many high-banked tracks but struggle on some tracks. The team has also been struggling for sponsorship in recent years and this appears to be a factor in Kenseth's decision to depart for Joe Gibbs's Toyota operation.

Teammate Greg Biffle often runs as well or even better than Kenseth and is third in points right now although it's equally difficult to see Biffle as a championship threat. After battling with Stewart for last year's championship Carl Edwards has been a disappointment this year in the other Roush-Fenway Ford. Edwards has not won this year and is currently ranked eleventh in points which means he's out of the Chase unless he can move up in points or win a race and take one of two 'Wild Card' slots.

Defending champion Stewart has won three races--as many as anyone--but has had his struggles in some races as he did in New Hampshire the weekend before last. Stewart is seventh in points right now but has to rate as a powerful possibility to repeat as champion. He's a true racer who's been able to immediately establish his team among NASCAR's top tier--no small accomplishment. Part of Stewart-Haas's success is Tony's agreement with Rick Hendrick to provide the team with Hendrick cars and engines but at 41 Stewart is without doubt at the peak of his career.

Teammate Ryan Newman has enjoyed some good races but can't match Stewart week in, week out. Newman looks unlikely to make the Chase and it was also confirmed two weeks ago that his car's primary sponsor, the US Army, is scuttling its NASCAR sponsorship at the end of the year.

Hendrick Motorsport remains NASCAR's powerhouse team capable of getting all four of its cars into the top ten in more than a few races. So far this year Hendrick has won just three races, one each with Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. At this stage, all three have qualified for the Chase while teammate Jeff Gordon looks like being left out in the cold once again.

Despite looking good in many races Gordon has run into every kind of problem this year and has yet to win a race in 2012. He's sixteenth in points and needs at least one win to have any hope of making the Chase. Meanwhile, five-time champion Johnson has been very competitive in many races and must rate with Stewart as a co-favorite for this year's title. Despite winning only once so far this year Johnson and Chad Knaus's team remain at the height of their powers with more championships within their grasp.

It's hard to see either Earnhardt or Kahne shaping up as championship contenders but Junior has enjoyed his most competitive season with Hendrick and is currently ranked second in points. Needless to say, his vast base of fans will be highly energized if he's a factor in the championship battle. After winning in New Hampshire it's clear that Kahne is beginning to find his feet with the team and he could be surprisingly strong in the Chase.

Joe Gibbs's lead Toyota team continues to flatter only to deceive. Occasional strong showings by one or more of Gibbs's cars are followed by mediocre performances. Denny Hamlin has won twice so far this year and is fifth in points while Kyle Busch has won just once in this year's Cup series and is thirteenth in points. Right now Kyle has the second Wild Card slot for the Chase. Hamlin challenged unsuccessfully for the championship two years ago and could feature again while Busch continues unable to harness his considerable talent. Joey Logano has also won once but is fourteenth in points and out of the Chase right now.

Other Chase qualifiers at this stage include Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski. Harvick is capable of challenging for the championship as he and Richard Childress's team have ably demonstrated but he remains a long shot. RCR teammates Jeff Burton and Paul Menard haven't won this year and appear to be out of the Chase. Truex and Bowyer have run well in Michael Waltrip's Toyotas and Bowyer in particular could be a factor in the Chase.

Maybe the biggest dark horse is Keselowksi, now Penske's de facto number one NASCAR driver. Keselowski is a fast, feisty racer who's won three Cup races so far this year. From a renowned Michigan racing family Keselowski won the Nationwide championship in 2010 and has been a regular winner and frontrunner with Penske's Cup team.

A.J. Allmendinger got the break of his life when Roger Penske chose him to replace the departed Kurt Busch this year. Allmendinger's talent has been obvious for many years in Champ Car and then NASCAR and with Penske this year he seemed to be knocking on the door of scoring his first Cup win until things went sadly awry a few weeks ago amid a random drug test. Sam Hornish filled in for Allmendinger for two races but the three-time IRL champion and '06 Indy 500 winner is committed to running the full Nationwide series and won't be able to drive the car on a regular basis.

With Penske switching to Ford next year Dodge has been looking for the right partner to lead its NASCAR program. All the top teams are committed to Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota resulting in Dodge having lengthy talks with Michael Andretti. It would be a big step for Andretti in many ways but I'm sure it's an appealing discussion providing Michael with the opportunity to broaden his base beyond IndyCar's troubled waters.

Of course, there are plenty of cautionary tales for Michael, not least Chip Ganassi's struggles to establish his NASCAR team as a top tier operation. Last winter Chip made some major personnel changes in his NASCAR team hoping to push Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray further up the field on a regular basis. But so far this year the team's results have been tepid at best and neither Montoya nor McMurray have any hopes of making the Chase.

Meanwhile, a slow but steady decline in attendance continues at many NASCAR races. The most dramatic slide has occurred at Indianapolis and the IMS hopes to spark some fresh excitement at the Brickyard this week by adding Nationwide and Grand-Am races to this year's card. NASCAR's TV ratings are hanging in there, way ahead of any other form of racing, but nothing like the dizzy hopes from a few years back of competing with the likes of the NFL. Come contract renewal time there are sure to be some difficult negotiations and reduction in rights fees.

Also, NASCAR's fan base is a graying demographic with few young fans. In fact, the US Army specifically cited the lack of young fans as a key reason for terminating its NASCAR sponsorship while continuing in the NHRA.

Looking to attract both older and young fans NASCAR and its manufacturers have put a lot of effort into creating next year's new Cup cars with much greater brand identity. NASCAR hopes the change will create renewed fan interest and better value for its four manufacturers.

Another issue is that there probably are too many races and too many long races in particular lasting three or four hours. But neither is likely to change. There are always new tracks looking to promote Cup races and none of the existing tracks are ready to give up or cut back their NASCAR weekends.

Regardless, NASCAR continues to define automobile racing to the American public and media. Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the great names of American racing. Anything and anyone else are small beans.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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