November 29, 2011

The Best Runner-Up

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Two is a lonely number in NASCAR. (Getty)
The tiebreaker for the 2011 Sprint Cup champion was the number of race wins.  Naturally, for Carl Edwards and his seven second-place results, he finished the tiebreaker in second.

While champion Tony Stewart amounted five wins in the Chase, he also only came away with nine top-fives and 19 top-10s (just over half, for those of you non-math majors) in 36 races.

Edwards, meanwhile, amassed 19 top-fives (again, over half of the races) and 26 top-10s.  Those numbers haven't been matched by anyone since Edwards went 19 and 27 in 2008.  Care to guess where he finished that year?

Second.

He said on ESPN after the Homestead-Miami finale that he told his wife the night before if he didn't win, he'd try to be the best runner-up the sport has ever had.  Ironically, that seems to be the direction Carl has headed with his career.

November 22, 2011

Determination Wins a Championship

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Stewart combined will with
skill to win the Cup (Getty)
There comes a time in any championship run in any sport where skill becomes irrelevant.

The talent you've worked your life to perfect takes care of itself.  Your mental state turns into an sub-concious where you react with the decisions you've been engrained to make.  Your surroundings fall away into a peculiar, white static, like something in a virtual reality, that you simply tune out.

You're totally focused on the task at hand: winning.  You only see a trophy in front of you and you're locked in, determined to claim it.

We saw this performance from newly crowned NASCAR champion Tony Stewart this past weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Stewart fell to the back of the pack twice due to car issues, lost ground as Carl Edwards racked up laps led and waited through a red-flag rain delay for over an hour.

None of it mattered.

Once he got going, Stewart darted through traffic like an ambulance during rush hour.  He was routinely seen dropping out of the double-file herd as the cars entered turn 1 off restarts.  The strategy worked in making up a few spots each time, so he tried it on the race's final restart and blew to the front of the pack.

November 17, 2011

Homestretch at Homestead

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Perhaps Edwards will win again to avoid
the awkwardness of two burnouts. (Getty)
This is it!  The final week of the season.

The final time I'll dig through NASCAR's statistical advance, scrounge through NASCAR.com and check out Yahoo! Fantasy NASCAR stats in hopes of calculating a winning formula.

This weekend's all about Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, but that doesn't mean there won't be 41 other cars on the track for the Ford 400.

Kasey Kahne reminded us that there's more than just two cars out there when he broke a long winless slump at Phoenix last weekend.  Sure, Stewart led the most laps and Edwards looked good until a slow pit stop landed him behind Kahne late.  But, there are still plenty of good drivers out there that could steal some thunder this weekend.

Let's hope, for the sake of excitement, that either Edwards or Stewart pulls out the win.  The reality is that if one of those two wins the race, he'll win the championship, regardless of the other's finish. That makes for a fitting symmetry for the final race.

November 15, 2011

NASCAR's Game 7

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Both Edwards (right) and Stewart (left) will
take the Cup by winning the race (Getty).
In most sports, Game 7 is the pinnacle of competition.  The winner-take-all, loser-goes-home-empty-handed crux that defines the thin line between glory and gut-wrenching disappointment.

Auto racing doesn't really have that.  It doesn't have a sudden death goal, a buzzer beating shot or a game-winning field goal.  At least, it doesn't usually have something like that.  That's changed this year.

This weekend's race at Homestead will be Game 7 for the Sprint Cup Series.  Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart will go head-to-head in an elimination round.

Picture this: With five laps to go, Brian Vickers wrecks Andy Lally to bring out a caution.

Why Lally?  Let's be honest, he's one of the few drivers Vickers hasn't wrecked in the past few weeks, so you have to assume it's coming.  But I digress; that's beside the point.

The picture I'm trying to paint is one where Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have raced hard for 265 laps as they lineup in the front row, side-by-side for a green-white-checkered finish.  If that scenario ensues, it will literally be the equivalent to an overtime finish.  Who ever crosses the finish line first takes the championship!

November 9, 2011

A Mile Full of Questions

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. talk during
last month's test at Phoenix. (Getty)
By now you've probably heard that Phoenix International Raceway underwent a huge face lift this summer.

Only in Arizona is the weather warm enough that you can space races so far apart to undertake these changes during the season!  The raceway changed some of the banking, reshaped the backstretch to more of a dog leg and laid down new pavement on the aging track.

All of these will make this race the Chase's biggest wild card outside of Talladega.

Most of the drivers are approaching the track as if it's one they've never raced on before, and, in some ways, that's a fair thought.  The reshaped dog leg changes the overall configuration of the track, so drivers will have to modify their vision of the track.  Imagine if you moved the bed in your room.  Sure, it's the same room and the same bed, but you'll have to walk to a different spot before you can lie down.

November 8, 2011

Living Up to the Hype

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Stewart (left) and Edwards are shoulder-to-
shoulder with two races left. (NASCAR.com)
Could we ask anything more from the Chase for the Sprint Cup!?

Well, Junior fans would probably say a race win, but aside from that, we're getting our money's worth this autumn!

Texas Motor Speedway spent all last week building up the Carl Edwards vs. Tony Stewart duel and the two competitors delivered the promise on Sunday.  Stewart dominated the race, but Edwards crossed the finish line right behind him for second.

The win helped Stewart close the eight point gap to three, but Edwards' relentlessness made it so "Smoke" couldn't pass him in the standings.  The result leaves the two neck-in-neck with two races to go.

Stewart has won a very impressive four wins in the Chase, while Edwards hasn't registered a win since the third race of the season.  However, it's Edwards consistency that has made him an elite driver all season.  "Cousin Carl" leads the field this season with 17 top-fives (half of the season's races) and 24 top-10s.

November 2, 2011

Stakes Raised in Texas

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Stewart used last weekend's win to
announce his Chase presence. (Getty)
Yesterday, Texas Motor Speedway sent out an email likening the matchup between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart to a heavyweight boxing fight.

Myself?  I prefer to stick to the stereotypical poker reference to Texas Hold 'Em, as we prepare for the AAA Texas 500.

At this point, it's down to a small Final Table.  Kevin Harvick might have a few chips left, maybe even Brad Keselowski, but the system should blind them out of it soon and leave a heads-up match between Edwards and Stewart.

Like in poker, the two drivers have risen to the top through vastly different tactics.  Edwards, who currently leads by eight points, has gone the conservative route.  He's been up near the top much of the Chase (and most of the season) and hasn't seen a need to take a chance and risk toppling his stack.

Edwards has just one win to his credit, the third race of the season, and has preached consistency over domination.  He's the kind of guy that if he joined your poker game at home, he'd be satisfied cleaning up $5 here, $5 there, instead of going all-in for the big $50 hand.

November 1, 2011

Hibernating "The Magic Mile"

As originally written for NHMS.com's Granite Stripe blog

Snow covers the infield and hill on the backstretch.
What a nice day today!  It's warm, the snow's melting, you can see some green poking through the ground; it's spring, right!?  When's FANtasy Drive?

Ugh.

Nope.  Unfortunately, that opinion falls somewhere between delusional and denial.  We just got an early, pre-Halloween snowstorm before the late autumn warmth restored order to the season today.

Still, the first snow is always a sad day at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.  It's the end of the season and it fittingly came just in time to close out the year.

Sure, the big crowds that packed the stands for major race weekends have long since migrated south to Alabama, Virginia and, now, Texas.  But, the race season lingers on through most of October at NHMS in the form of local series, clubs and driving schools.  However, as we begin November, even those have packed up.