It's the weekend again. Time to dust off the ol' Mini Stock and take it out of the garage for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...
I'LL ADMIT IT, I didn't see this coming.
Tony Stewart, 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
It's not as though we didn't think Stewart was talented enough to be a series champion. Heck, he'd won two of them previously while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. And it wasn't that it seemed impossible for an "owner-driver" to win the Cup, especially when you stop to consider that Hendrick Motorsports does most of the heavy lifting for Stewart-Haas Racing these days.
And it wasn't even the fact that Stewart went out and won four of the first eight Chase races this season but still trailed Carl Edwards by three points heading into the season finale.
No, it was more the fact that Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team had been virtual also-rans for the first 26 races of the season, the driver himself saying that the team was nowhere near being a Chase contender as recently as late August.
For my money, there are really two ways to look at Stewart's improbable run to the Cup this season.
The first seems obvious. His effort in the Ford 400 season final at Homestead-Miami Speedway was one for the ages – the kind of drive we'll all be talking about for years to come. It was, if you'll allow, almost Dale Earnhardt-esque in that Stewart knew what he had to do, couldn't afford to play a patient game and then went out and accomplished it.
For Edwards, you have to feel for a guy that quite literally couldn't have done anything else – finishing inside the Top-12 in every single one of the 10 Chase races. Stewart flat-out beat him in NASCAR's most thrilling finish to a season since the start of the Chase format.
Stewart rose to the occasion the way the greatest teams in sports history do – when the playoffs started, he was at his absolute best. Like the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins from last year, Stewart did what he had to do just to make the playoffs – and then he upped his game big-time on the biggest, brightest stage. Kudos to him.
Which brings me to the second way we can look at this championship in hindsight.
An uninspired run through the regular season. A crew chief that had already been given his walking papers before the Chase was even half over. A driver that thought it more important to bash an ex-girlfriend in Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway then heap praise on a team that helped him win the first two rounds of the Chase.
Stewart fans have to wonder if they got the "real Tony Stewart" for three-quarters of the 2011 season. The people that buy his hats, shirts and die-cast collectibles – eat at Burger King, gas up at Mobil stations and buy printer supplies at Office Depot – have to be scratching their heads a bit.
The easy defense of that is that Stewart won the championship, and that's what the bottom line should read when all is said and done. But in a sport that was built around the idea of winning races – and a NASCAR fan base that's clamored for wins to mean a little more in recent years – Stewart has proven that winning races isn't always his focus.
I'm not buying the fact that in the days leading up to the start of the Chase, the No. 14 team hit on something they hadn't had all year. I'm not buying that they somehow developed a new chassis with bells and whistles nobody else had. And I'm certainly not buying that Stewart simply rose to the occasion.
In fact, I think Stewart's regular season was so disappointing that one has to wonder if he was trying at all.
Nothing can take away from the way Stewart competed in the Chase, winning five races in 10 starts and putting one one of the most brilliant driving displays of the modern NASCAR era in the Ford 400.
But when we look back at this championship season, we've also got to look back and wonder where that fire had been all summer long...
NASCAR WHELEN MODIFIED Tour competitor Jimmy Blewett put his home track advantage to good use on Saturday.
Blewett won the Turkey Derby 150 for Tour-type Modifieds at Wall Stadium, and he also claimed the SK Modified portion of the card.
That's a great effort for one of the most naturally gifted Modified drivers of the current generation, even if we don't get to see "Showtime" enough on the Whelen Modified Tour.
THIS KURT BUSCH tirade from Homestead sure has gotten a lot of play this week, which is somewhat surprising.
It's difficult to defend Busch's actions (and potty mouth) in his exchange with an ESPN television crew while waiting to be interviewed after exiting the race early, but these kinds of outbursts aren't unique to Busch or NASCAR in general. There's a reason that virtually every professional and major college sport has a 10- to 15-minute "cooling off" period for its athletes before the media is allowed access.
What is surprising in the Busch case is that people are shocked that a ultra-competitive, ultra-alpha-male, ultra-pumped-up-on-adrenaline-driver would be so apt to pull the proverbial pin.
That's not to defend Busch's actions or very choice words in this instance, but it is symptomatic of the entire system.
NASCAR drivers are not afforded a "cooling off" period during or after races, and that's two-fold. It's in part because the sport has long prided itself on unmatched accessibility to its personalities, but it's also because waiting 10 minutes before approaching drivers following races means they're going to be 10 minutes closer to home by the time the media reaches the hauler.
NASCAR's stars (and it's 30th-40th-place drivers, too) are notorious for exiting tracks en masse once exiting their race cars. If NASCAR wants to avoid the kind of cell phone videos like the one that caught Busch, it ought to consider a policy by which drivers are required to remain at race tracks until 20 minutes after a race ends – thus allowing for both "cooling off" and the fulfillment of media obligations.
GREAT NEWS FOR the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
NASCAR announced this week that the 2012 season will conclude in early November at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina.
Another mile track, in addition to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway, is now on the series slate. Joining the NASCAR Southern Whelen Modified Tour at Rockingham, it's bound to be a nice showcase for the series – where they will run on a big track without being a Friday afternoon afterthought lost in a Cup weekend.
But it's also a nice addition for the drivers in the series, who will get more experience with the kinds of speeds they're going to see as they climb the NASCAR ladder.
YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the Miles Standwich, and don't forget to tip your waitress. Jeff Beck is here, so stick around.