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/ Keselowski's NASCAR title & F1 in Texas

by Gordon Kirby
Last weekend provided a rousing conclusion to the 2012 American racing season with the first running of Formula One at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas and NASCAR's season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida. Lewis Hamilton, Sebastien Vettel and Fernando Alonso finished one-two-three in Texas, with Alonso keeping his slim championship hopes alive, while Brad Keselowski won his and Roger Penske's first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at Homestead after Jimmie Johnson suffered a rear end failure late in the race.

I'll get to this year's Formula One season and the Circuit of the Americas successful debut later. But first, I want to discuss this year's NASCAR championship battle between Keselowski and Johnson.

In only his third, full Sprint Cup season--all with Penske--the 28-year old Keselowksi was the biggest dark horse in this year's Chase for the Cup. Keselowski is a fast, feisty third generation racer who comes from an accomplished Michigan racing family. His father Bob won the ARCA championship in 1989 and Brad broke into NASCAR in 2008, driving in the Nationwide series for JR Motorsports and running two Sprint Cup races in a Hendrick car.

In 2009 Keselowski finished third in Nationwide points with JR Motorsports and scored his first Cup victory at Talladega driving James Finch's car. He also ran seven Cup races for Hendrick in '09 and got a big break at the end of the year when he was hired by Roger Penske. In 2010, Keselowski ran full-time for Penske in both the Cup and Nationwide series and won the Nationwide championship, thus taking Penske's first NASCAR title.

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Keselowski continued to run both series the past two years and became Penske's de facto number one NASCAR driver at the end of last year when Penske parted ways with Kurt Busch and Keselowski was moved into the #2 'Blue Deuce' Miller car.

Keselowski won three Cup races last year, made the Chase for the first time, and finished fifth in points. This year, he's been a front runner all season, winning three races during the regular season. He was seeded fourth going into the Chase behind Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart and made himself a serious title contender by adding two more wins in the opening rounds of the Chase.

Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe have earned a reputation for making good strategic calls and former NASCAR champion and current ESPN commentator Dale Jarrett said he's impressed with young Keselowski's wise head.

"I've been amazed at how aware Brad is of everything that's going on around him," Jarrett remarked. "He takes in a lot of information and he's made some very good calls on strategy this year which have helped put him in the position he's now in."

NASCAR couldn't hope for a better first-time champion. Keselowski is young, tech-savvy and eager to speak his mind. He loves to tweet and use his smartphone, although he was fined for using it during the red flag at Phoenix the weekend before last.

Roger Penske has run cars in NASCAR since 1972 and scored his first Cup wins a few years later with Bobby Allison. Penske took a few years away from NASCAR in 1978 and '79 but returned at the end of 1980 with Rusty Wallace who led The Captain's stock car program for the next quarter-century through his retirement at the end of 2005. Wallace finished second in the Cup championship to Bill Elliott in 1988 and Dale Earnhardt in '93, winning ten races in '93 and eight the following year.

Ryan Newman joined Penske's Cup team in 2001 and won a season high eight races in '03. Kurt Busch joined Penske in '06 with high hopes, but he was never able to be consistently competitive, winning the odd race but often grumbling and occasionally arguing with the boss. Newman left at the end of 2008 to join Stewart-Haas, opening the door to Keselowski's arrival at the end of '09.

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Keselowski looked good from the start in both Cup and Nationwide cars and did an outstanding job this year to win Penske's first Sprint Cup championship in the team's last year with Dodge and its excellent in-house engine program. Next year, Penske will race Fords with engines from Roush-Yates and it will be interesting to see if the drivers and team will be able to maintain the same form with different equipment.

Sam Hornish replaced A.J. Allmendinger in Penske's second Cup car this year after Allmendinger failed a drug test. Hornish did a good job but was clearly overshadowed by Keselowski. The 2006 Indy 500 winner and three-time IRL champion has focused on the Nationwide series the last year and a half and will continue to lead Penske's second division team next year. Joey Logano joins Penske next year as Keselowski's Cup teammate which should make for a strong combination of youngbloods.

Jimmie Johnson may have fallen short in his quest for a sixth championship but he showed tremendous ability time and again throughout the year. Johnson is as good as they come, and a gentleman too, and enjoys a very productive partnership with longtime crew chief Chad Knaus. On the face of things with the power of Hendrick Motorsports behind them, Johnson and Knaus should continue to run up front and challenge for more championships for some years to come.

In fact, Rick Hendrick's operation was the only team able to qualify all their cars for this year's Chase. Each of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne also made the championship play-off and enjoyed many competitive races through the season. Gordon had a frustrating year with many strong runs coming to naught and his frustration boiled over in the penultimate race at Phoenix when he very deliberately put Clint Bowyer into the wall.

Gordon was fined $1000,000 fine, docked 25 points and put on probation through the end of the year, but wasn't suspended from racing at Homestead last weekend as many believed would have been a more fitting penalty.

Earnhardt also had his frustrations, missing two Chase races because of a concussion, but he was able to score his first win in four years and ran among the top three in points for much of the season. In his first year with Hendrick, Kahne won two races and often ran up front. Kahne should be even more competitive next year and could be a championship contender.

This year's top-seeded Chase contender was Denny Hamlin who won four races during the regular season aboard one of Joe Gibbs's Toyotas but once again couldn't put it together during the Chase. Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch were quick in many races and occasionally dominant, but neither was able to achieve their potential. Busch was the most prominent driver to miss the Chase. Joey Logano drove Gibbs's third Toyota the past four years but moves to Penske in 2013.

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The other Chase competitors this year were defending champion Tony Stewart; Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle with Roush Fenway; Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. with Michael Waltrip Racing; and Kevin Harvick with Richard Childress's team. Stewart won three races this year but was inconsistent and didn't show much of the flair he demonstrated in winning last year's championship. Teammate Ryan Newman didn't qualify for this year's Chase.

Both Kenseth and Biffle won races this year in Roush Fenway Fords. They were quick in most races on big tracks but never figured as serious championship contenders. Teammate Carl Edwards had a deeply anti-climatic year after battling with Stewart for the 2011 title. Edwards didn't win a race this year and was rarely in the hunt.

Kenseth moves to Joe Gibbs's Toyota team next year after fourteen years with Jack Roush and Ford. He will be replaced by two-time Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Clint Bowyer won two races and was very competitive in many races in his first year with Michael Waltrip's Toyota team. Teammate Martin Truex Jr. also made the Chase while veteran Mark Martin was very quick in some races. The team remains unchanged for 2013.

Kevin Harvick had another disappointing year with Richard Childress although he was able to break a 44-race winless streak at Phoenix the week before last. It's said Harvick will leave RCR after thirteen years to join Stewart-Haas in 2014. Veteran Jeff Burton didn't qualify for the Chase, nor did Paul Menard, but both continue with RCR next year. Austin Dillon will join them for a handful of races.

Among those failing to qualify for this year's Chase were Juan-Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray who had terrible seasons with Chip Ganassi's reshuffled team. Ganassi got rid of managers Steve Hmiel and Tony Glover and engineer Ed Nathman at the end of last year and put Max Jones in charge of his NASCAR team but Montoya and McMurray were mired in the midfield most of the time and finished out of the top twenty in points.

Meanwhile, a slow but steady decline in attendance continues at many NASCAR races. 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. Also, NASCAR's fan base is a graying demographic with few young fans.

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 three manufacturers.

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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, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and now Keselowski too, are the great names of American racing. Anything and anyone else are small beans.

Whatever you might think, NASCAR is by far the most competitive form of racing in America, maybe the world, with a ferociously deep field. Antique as the cars may be, they are beautifully-built and prepared, despite the fact that they are so frequently crashed or destroyed, and it's a fact that NASCAR's top teams enjoy the manpower and resources equal to the best F1 teams.

"When you've got 45 or 46 cars qualifying within six-tenths of a second of each other, that's seriously competitive motor racing," Tony Stewart told me in a feature I wrote about him in the December edition of Motor Sport. "They don't have more than three or four cars that qualify within six-tenths of a second of each other at a Formula One race. In Formula One there are four or five teams every weekend that have a realistic shot of winning the race. You come to a Cup race and there are fifteen to eighteen cars that have a realistic shot of winning the race each week.

"In NASCAR, every lap you have to deal with a car that has twice the weight of a Formula One car and half the downforce, half the tire and half the engineering. With a big car like ours when you get around other cars it really disturbs our cars. Two cars running side by side in Formula One really doesn't screw up their downforce, but it does with our cars because they're so big and because of the side force they make. When you're dealing with a heavy race car like ours with not much downforce and little tires, it's a very, very fine line of balance."

In F1 this year the fine line of balance and tire management has been mastered most adroitly by Sebastien Vettel and Red Bull Racing. Fernando Alonso made a run at the world title for Ferrari, but Vettel and Christian Horner's team, aided by chief designer Adrian Newey, had the measure of Alonso and Ferrari.

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The McLarens were quick in some races, but neither Lewis Hamilton nor Jenson Button were able to achieve the necessary consistency in performance, or results, to challenge Red Bull or Ferrari. And Kimi Raikkonen made a solid return to F1 with Lotus-Renault, scoring a good win in Abu Dahbi and pulling himself into the top three in points.

What can you say about Vettel? In his fourth year with Red Bull at 25, he appears headed to his third World Championship in a row. He was dominant last year, with eleven wins and fifteen poles, but less so this year as a number of teams, including Mercedes, Williams and Sauber, enjoyed rare days in the sun. Alonso pulled Ferrari up by the bootstraps and put himself and the team in championship contention but it was clear as the year wore on that the Red Bulls, and others, had the legs on Ferrari.

None of the top teams were able to field two podium-scoring cars in every race or match the level of results Red Bull achieved in 2011. Mark Weber had too many off days this year and the same can be said for Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean. Red Bull appeared to be set back by the FIA's ban on the latest blown diffuser system they had developed, but Newey and his team of engineers worked away and got their cars back on top for most races in the second half of the season.

As Bobby Rahal says about Newey in the December issue of Motor Sport: "I've always said, give me Adrian Newey and he'll design the best race car and we don't need the best driver to win. Give the driver $2 million and Adrian $9 million and you'll get a lot more value out of your money than by giving it all to the driver."

Renowned big-money driver Lewis Hamilton had some days when he was unbeatable, as in Austin, but was let down too many times either by his car or himself. Toward the end of the season Hamilton made the curious decision to move to Mercedes next year, replacing the retiring Michael Schumacher. Will Hamilton be able to transform the team into a front-runner? It will be interesting to watch as the likes of Vettel, Alonso, Raikkonen and Button stay put with their respective top teams.

It was great to see a large and enthusiastic crowd in Austin for F1's successful return to the United States at the Circuit of the Americas. In its debut, Austin won approval as an ideal venue for F1 in America and we hope the race's arrival will help provide the country's mass media and popular culture with a broader view of motor racing, beyond NASCAR. Here's hoping the Circuit of the Americas establishes itself as a longterm success and beats the drum loudly for both road racing and open-wheel racing in America.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2012 ~ All Rights Reserved