Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead at Indianapolis, giving his fans something to cheer about in a season where there have been plenty of highlights. Although the points will be reset at the start of the Chase, the question becomes can Earnhardt continue his successful season and win the championship?
That was among the questions Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were asked about last weekend’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s what they had to say about those issues and more:
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the championship? Earnhardt took the points lead at Indianapolis, the first time he’s led the points since late in the 2004 season. Fan Council members were asked if they thought he would win the championship this year:
64.5 percent said No
35.5 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• Even though I've been an Earnhardt fan all my life and have been hoping that Junior would finally win a Cup championship, I don't think this is the year. First, Jimmie Johnson served notice (Sunday) that anyone winning the championship this year will have to beat him to do it. Next, even though Junior is perhaps the most consistent driver in the sport this year, consistency, without wins won't get the job done. I think he'll win again. Ultimately, though, I think 5-Time becomes 6-Time. Jimmie is just too good.
• One win in four years. Letarte's track record in the Chase is pretty poor, especially when he got used up by Knaus in 2007. Earnhardt's record in the Chase isn't much better. There's no value in leading the points before the Chase.
• It's hard to pinpoint just why I don't think he will win. I think it's a combination of a lack of complete faith in Steve Letarte's ability to close the deal along with the feeling the luck he's had will not last. On the other hand, I do see maturity in Junior that just might supersede everything else.
• This has been his most consistent year. Consistency wins championships.
• He has yet to convince me he has the killer instinct to go out and drive beyond the car to go out and win more races and win the Chase.
• As a Junior fan, I'm just worried the team is gonna choke.
• As Steve Letarte said in a pre-race interview, “Give FIVE reasons why they won’t AND I’ll give ya FIVE reasons why they can.”
• Dale Jr. does not have the mental/emotional fortitude to win the championship. He has a tendency to get focused on and bothered by things that distract him. I believe Steve Letarte will give him the cars, and his crew will give him the performances necessary to win a championship, but I believe Junior will get distracted by something the media says, the fans want (or are saying) and he will lose enough focus to lose the championship. I believe he will learn that lesson and be a stronger contender for the championship the next time he's in the position.
• He has momentum behind him, a great owner and crew chief and crew. Plus he has Junior Nation behind him. It's his to lose.
• Even though he doesn't have the most wins this season has been the most consistent — but that isn't going to help with the last 10 races. Guys like Johnson and Stewart are going to step up and start rattling off wins and top 5s in the last 10 races. If Dale Jr. wins a couple more races before the Chase I would change my answer.
• Sorry Junior Nation, he's not going to win it. It will take multiple wins in the Chase to win it and his team is more about consistency. I also don't think he has the killer instinct it takes to win it. Until someone else wins one, I'm not sure anybody but Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart can win the title. I think it comes down to those two guys.
• Most consistent driver all year. He will win another race this year and capture that elusive championship. He is surviving the summer months well, where he typically does poor, which indicates that come fall, he will excel. I’ve never seen Junior this confident, mature and consistent.
• While he is my driver, I don't see domination. I see speed and consistency from the 88 team — and they belong in the Chase — but the winner of the Chase will dominate throughout it.
• I have to answer “yes.” I am a Junior fan and I have to have that faith. I am scared to even think it though, for fear that I will jinx him and Junior Nation! Regardless, I am so proud of his (and the entire 88 team’s) performance this year. BRAVO!
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis
51.8 percent said it was Good 35.8 percent said it was Fair 6.6 percent said it was Poor 5.8 percent said it was Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Really not a lot of racing at all. It's understandable at IMS because these are big, heavy cars that are aero-dependent and not made to run big, flat tracks.
• We actually saw some racing instead of the parade I have been used to at Indy. It is still hard to pass with the cars being so aero-sensitive but it seems the most dominant car won Sunday, unlike Saturday.
• One guy dominated and the only time anyone could pass was the first couple of laps of the run (after a restart). Not exciting unless you were a Johnson fan.
• Extremely boring. NASCAR doesn't belong at Indy.
• Seven laps in and the field was strung out into a single line and from that point on the only passing was (with little exception) on pit road or at restarts. That's how it always is at Indy (and Pocono and California and Michigan), so not unexpected. The Indy race isn't there for the exciting racing, it’s there for the prestige of running tin tops at Indianapolis. It should stay there for the history. It’s not like it’s the only place with strung-out, not particularly exciting, racing.
• For an Indianapolis race which tends to be more about pageantry than great racing, this was a pretty good race. It had slow/boring spots, but also had action — that was covered on the television broadcast — throughout the field. The leader running away from the field typically makes for a boring race, but the restarts alleviated the lack of competition for the lead during the longer green flag runs. There was some passing on a track known for its lack of passing. There were tire and engine issues adding the element of surprise to portions of the race.
• More single-file racing. Very little passing. This track is just not made for stock cars. And did you see the number of empty seats?! WOW!
• I saw a lot of tweets stating the race was boring. I don't know how anyone said it was boring. I saw a lot of passing, pit strategy, green flag stops, etc. Yes, Jimmie Johnson spanked the field, but there are a lot of other races for points, wild card, etc., going on. In racing, it's not over until the checkered flag flies. I never find a race boring — some especially more exciting — but never boring.
• That was a horrible race. It is never good. Why did I even bother? A lot of people assign blame to the “tire debacle” a few years ago (2008) for the declining attendance. We've had four races since then with no tire issues, so let's face it: stock cars suck at this track. And most of the seats there are terrible — there are huge parts of the track you can't see. WHY would anybody go there for a Cup race? NASCAR weekends are expensive. If I am going to spend the money, it'll be at a track where I can see all the action! (Example: Richmond is our next race!)
• I attended the race at the Brickyard. Granted, you can't see much of the track, but I still thought the racing was pretty good. I focused on some battles between drivers — not just my driver. I did see passing until the field got too far apart. Neat to see Jimmie win his fourth Brickyard. Hated to see Matt get wrecked, but loved seeing Dale Jr. leave leading in the points.
Grade how ESPN showed the end of the Indianapolis Cup race. ESPN noted that it showed the final 23 minutes of the race and the first eight minutes of post-race coverage without commercial interruption. To do that required more commercial breaks earlier in the race. Fan Council members were asked if they were fine with the long commercial-free portion at the end of there race or if they would rather have the commercial breaks more evenly spaced.
88.8 percent liked how ESPN showed the end of the race minus commercials
11.2 percent wanted more evenly spaced commercial breaks throughout the race
What Fan Council members said:
• What I really liked was the actual post-race coverage. Usually, we don't get much and I have to start looking for more info online, but this time I could just stick with the TV.
• The end of the race is what matters. Sure, we might miss what causes a caution or two but I think we all agree, at the end of the race, when strategy is coming together we want to see that.
• At least they (ESPN) are making an effort to appease viewers. I didn't notice the commercials in this race, to be honest, which is a good thing. (Believe me, the mashed potatoes/macaroni & cheese debate has been tattooed into the national conscience of NASCAR Nation.) I don't need uninterrupted post-race coverage unless there's some sort of controversy, a la the Nationwide race this weekend.
• In an ideal world, there would be fewer commercials. However, I liked this because a lot of the time, the drivers don't “race” until later in the race.
• Whoopie do! For a good portion of those 23 final minutes they had a single-car camera shot of the 48. That's not really showing the race. Use a split screen if they want to focus on the leader — but show the racing in the field.
• I think their entire coverage was great! The timing of commercials was better than TNT.
• ESPN's coverage of the race was textbook how a race should be covered regarding commercials.
• I noticed more commercials in the early broadcast and was worried ESPN was going TNT on us, but then I also noticed the long run at the end going commercial-free and I approve of this immensely.
Grade the inaugural Nationwide race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
30.8 percent said it was Good 23.3 percent said it was Fair 21.5 percent didn’t watch 17.2 percent said it was Poor 7.2 percent said it was Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Maybe I'm just bitter, but I loved attending the NNS race at LOR. It was close racing and you can see the entire track. As a Speedway native, I love IMS with all my heart, but I chose to watch the NNS race on TV knowing I would be going to the Brickyard the next day. I didn't feel it was worth the money to watch a race with very little passing two days in a row.
• Any good feelings I might have had about the race were gone the minute NASCAR decided that, in spite of all the evidence in his favor, Elliott Sadler had to do the pass-thru penalty. The race ended for me right then. I've never been one to jump on conspiracy theories, but in that case, NASCAR made a decision that changed the outcome of the race and potentially the outcome of the season.
• Inconsistent calls and Cup drivers galore because they “needed” to be the first one to win at The Brickyard (in NNS). Roughly the same amount of people showed up that would have at LORP. It's time to go back to the short track.
• I think it was a HUGE mistake to take this race away from Lucas Oil Raceway and put on the big track. It did nothing but show two races that were boring this weekend. Since when is it better to take away all of the short tracks? I don't understand the thought process behind this move.
• It's great to see the NNS at Indy.
• They don't deserve to be running there. They were out of place and it just felt wrong. The race wasn't any good either.
• Fantastic action with the Nationwide race. I am in the “Support Elliott Saddler” camp. I think, truthfully, that Dillon was at fault and the correct action for that particular restart would have been to just do it over — very unfair to dump the whole blame on Elliott. And how could he possibly have slowed to give the position back without wrecking a lot of cars?
• I thought it was a little better than the Cup race. I don't know why — maybe because it was shorter? One thing I do know, though, is that Elliott Sadler got screwed. Bad call by NASCAR. That section of the rulebook might need to be updated. I'm not a Sadler fan, but he handled himself with a lot of dignity and class in that deal.
• It was very fun to watch. Some passing. Suspense. Well done.
• Lots and lots of drama! And some good racing!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
With apologies to Bill Elliott and the late, great Alan Kulwicki, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale may be the best the sport has ever seen.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards entered the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway separated by a scant three points in the championship standings, and each man’s clutch performance over the 10-race Chase almost guaranteed a showdown unlike any other in Homestead.
They did not disappoint. In fact, they somehow found a way to elevate their performance.
Edwards sat on the pole and led a commanding 119 laps while Stewart was forced to sacrifice valuable track position on two separate occasions, but in the end, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb had the car to beat. Running first and second throughout much of the second half of the race, Stewart led the final 36 laps over Edwards to win the Ford 400, creating a tie at the top of the standings. A tie-breaking scenario then came into play, and Stewart’s five victories bested Edwards’ one, and he was awarded his third career Cup championship.
“I would have lost every bet in the world if people would have said when you got in the Chase, that we were going to win a race or we were going to win five races and win this thing,” Stewart said. “I would have bet against us. And I learned a big lesson with our organization and how strong a program we have people-wise. I mean, everybody has good cars and good equipment, but I’m sure Darian’s mentioned it, it’s the people you have that make the difference.”
Edwards, who finished second in then race and in the standings, handled the outcome with a level of class not often seen in professional sports.
“This night is about Tony Stewart,” Edwards said after exiting his car. “Those guys rose to the occasion and beat us fair and square — that was all I had at the end. We came here and sat on the pole, led the most laps and Tony still managed — him and Darian — to do a good job with their strategy, come out in front of us … and that’s it, that’s all I got at the end. That’s as hard as I can drive.
“I told my wife, ‘If I can’t win, I’m going to be the best loser NASCAR’s ever had.’ So I’m gonna try really hard to keep my head up and know that we’ll just go next year, and we’ll just be as hard to beat next year.”
Stewart had his fair share of adversity to overcome in the season’s final 400 miles. While running 10th, he had a hole punched in the grille due to a piece of debris early in the going. A quick repair job under caution found him 40th when the green waved, while Edwards coolly paced the field. An additional stop under the next caution to complete service on the nose saw him 35th when racing resumed.
He drove through the pack to the lead by lap 123 of 267, but as darkness fell a slow pit stop on lap 136 dropped him to ninth. Twelve laps later, though, Stewart was back in the lead, having dodged and weaved his way through a wild restart. Almost as quickly as he found the front, Stewart was again snakebit under caution and while on pit road when, as before, a hung lug nut dropped him from the lead to ninth on lap 157.
Undeterred, Stewart drove his Chevy back to second behind Edwards when green flag stops cycled through with roughly 77 laps to go. Stewart and Grubb, planning on the potential of a long green run to end the race, pushed their fuel mileage, staying out 10 laps longer than Edwards. By the time Stewart finally pitted for four tires and fuel, Edwards and his two fresh tires had nearly lapped the No. 14 machine.
Then Stewart’s big break materialized — the one that gave him the track position he could keep and, in the process, win a championship: it started to rain one lap after his stop.
As the shower hit the track and NASCAR waved the caution flag, Stewart found himself over 23 seconds behind the leader, Edwards. However, knowing he needed one more stop to complete the distance, Edwards — along with a host of others — ducked to pit road as NASCAR dried the track. As they did, Stewart advanced from 15th to third and, for all intents and purposes, that was the ballgame.
On the restart with 37 laps remaining, Stewart pushed Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski three-wide into Turn 1, taking the lead one lap later, and scampered away from Edwards — who restarted fifth but quickly made his way to second. It looked like pole day from there, as both championship contenders hung it out on every lap, but Stewart’s four tires trumped Edwards’ two, and he led the rest of the way, winning by 1.3 seconds.
“I didn't question what the plan was or why the plan was,” Stewart said of the fuel mileage decision. “I just stuck to what he (Grubb) told me, and you know, the lap that he called us in, he called us in going into Turn 1, and when I came off Turn 2, the fuel pressure dropped, the motor laid down a little bit but was still running.
When I got to Turn 3, I shut it off, coasted around to Turn 4, kicked the switch, kicked the clutch (and) drove down pit road. We did the stop and he’s like, ‘Keep it revving, keep it running,’ and I’m staring at a fuel pressure gauge that’s not building.
“We dropped the jack, leave, get 50 feet from the last time line and it dies — I mean, it’s dead; it’s out. And I’m like, ‘We just lost this thing,’ and we roll about a hundred feed and it takes off and the needle goes up and it’s like, ‘Wow, that is the call of the race, the call of the Chase,’ and it gave me the opportunity to do what I love doing best: letting it all hang out and putting it all on the line with the restart.”
It was Stewart’s fifth win of the season, all of which came in the Chase. Edwards’ lone 2011 victory came at Las Vegas in March.
Most cite the 1992 finale as the greatest race and championship conclusion in NASCAR’s modern era. Kulwicki and Elliott settled that title in Atlanta, with the former winning his only Cup championship by leading more laps than the latter (despite running second to Elliott) to win by 10 points.
History will certainly mention the 2011 version in the same breath as, for the first time ever, the championship standings went to the number-of-race-wins tie-breaker. The two contenders finishing first and second in the all-important final race only added to the comparisons to ’92, as did Stewart’s status – like Kulwicki’s — as an owner/driver.
“Tony has taken on a hat of being an owner, and unfortunately there’s a lot of responsibilities that come with that as far as personnel changes and personnel problems, human resources and paying paychecks and all that stuff,” team co-owner Gene Haas said. “Tony takes that to heart and I think it can upset the way he races. So myself and Joe (Custer, co-owner) and all of the management at Stewart-Haas Racing, what we really tried to do in the last year or so was just isolate him from that; make sure that Tony just concentrated on the driving part.”
As the 2011 season wound down in Homestead, Fla., Tony Stewart was all driver, putting on what was arguably the greatest single performance of pure wheelmanship NASCAR has ever seen.