Valdosta Daily Times

November 25, 2011

NASCAR in 2011: The good, the bad and the ugly

Karah-Leigh Hancock
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — 2011 was a comeback year for NASCAR, but in some ways, it was a step in the wrong direction. Sure, the sport got a new champion, higher ratings and the stands on Sunday didn’t look so empty, but a set of brothers looked more like children on a playground throwing a tantrum than actual race car drivers.

The Good

Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing — The team started off a bit shaky, but came through just in time for both Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to make the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup title. Newman stayed consistent for the most part in the Chase, but it was his team owner Stewart who took NASCAR by storm and shocked fans and probably the other drivers by winning five out of 10 Chase races, including two back-to-back wins.

Stewart started out the Chase by saying he didn’t think his team deserved to be in it, considering their performance so far in the year. But then they won the first two races of the Chase.

Stewart went into Miami, the final race of the season, with a three-point deficit behind Carl Edwards and kept his “nothing to lose” attitude. If he won the race in Miami, he knew he would win the championship, and he did just that.

Stewart’s five wins this season is the most by a driver in the Chase since the championship race was implemented in 2004. He is the only driver to have won a championship under the Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and Sprint Cup names. He gives Jimmie Johnson’s five championships in a row a nice bookend (Stewart was the last driver besides Johnson to win the championship, back in 2005).

Tony Stewart proved this year that leaving Joe Gibbs Racing three years ago was not a mistake, but the beginning of the next chapter of the career of one of the most talented drivers in racing today.

First-time winners — In 2011, six drivers won Sprint Cup races for the first time. Among them were Trevor Bayne, who won the Daytona 500 a day after his 20th birthday and in his first 500 start.  Among the other drivers who won for the first time were David Ragan, who won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Paul Menard, who won the Brickyard 400, and Regan Smith, who won at Darlington.

The Bad

Jimmie Johnson — How can someone be considered ‘bad’ when they finished sixth in the Chase and won two races? When you’re Jimmie Johnson and that’s all you accomplished this year, that’s how.

When you win five championships in a row, anything less than another championship isn’t a great year. His average finish this year was better than his average finish last year (11.9 compared to 12.2), but that wasn’t enough. His nine-year streak of top-five points finishes has been demolished.

The Ugly

Kurt and Kyle Busch — What can you say about the Busch brothers besides the fact that one has to wonder if their parents disciplined them as children. Both brothers got in trouble this year, like every year, said almost every expletive in the book to their crew chiefs, car owners, etc. and acted like five-year-olds who didn’t get the piece of candy they wanted.

It would take a whole other column to discuss who the two have had run-ins with this year. Owner Richard Childress reportedly held Kyle in a headlock this season while punching him in the face. Childress’ driver, Kevin Harvick, tried to reach into Kyle’s car at Darlington and punch him. Instead, Kyle sent Harvick’s car into the pit road wall.

Then Kyle spun out Harvick’s Truck Series driver, Ron Hornaday Jr., who was running for a championship, during a caution at Texas Motor Speedway, leaving NASCAR to suspend him for the rest of the weekend. He also lost his M&M’s sponsorship for the last two races of the year.

Last weekend at Miami, after brother Kurt wrecked out just a few laps into the race, Dr. Jerry Punch of ESPN stood in the garage waiting to talk to the elder Busch. Someone, a fan I suppose, had a camera, videotaping Kurt and Punch, waiting to go live on ESPN when Kurt began throwing expletives like they were going out of style. Punch finally said, “Never mind,” and walked away with the camera crew.

On Monday, in a decision that was probably made before Miami, Kurt’s crew chief, Steve Addington (who is also Kyle’s ex-crew chief) left the driver and Penske Racing. He’s the second crew chief to leave Kurt in the past three NASCAR seasons.

It’s time for them to grow up, especially Kurt. The elder Busch, who is going through a divorce and is already dating someone who looks exactly like his soon-to-be ex-wife, has caused more drama in the sport than “The Young and the Restless” has seen in its almost 40 years on the air. But talking the way he did in Miami to a man who has been reporting on the sport for years is pushing the line.

When Roush-Fenway Racing released Kurt from its stable of drivers in 2005, they made the comment that they were no longer apologizing for Kurt. Maybe it’s time for Roger Penske to do the same.