Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: 2010 Season in Review – Final Thoughts on NASCAR’s Grand Finale

Wow. After 36 weeks the 2010 NASCAR season is now a memory. There were many memorable moments this year that stand out, an indelible image burned from each one. Jamie McMurray winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Denny Hamlin hobbling to his car a week after knee surgery. Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton slap fighting on the backstretch at Texas, then taking a ride together about 10 seconds later.

Oh, yeah, and Jimmie Johnson winning his fifth consecutive title.

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Yeah I know, I picked Hamlin to win it by the narrowest of margins a couple of weeks back, but let’s all be honest here – are any of us really that surprised that the No. 48 team won? This past Sunday (Nov. 21) brought about a number of final thoughts regarding the final weekend of the 2010 season, as well as what 2011 and beyond might hold.

The Emperor Has No Clothes. Or Clue.

Is there any other major sporting organization that has an owner as erratic and out of touch as Brian France? For somebody who is as obsessed with the NFL and yearns to have his body of work mentioned in the same breath as America’s favorite sport, how can he be so utterly disconnected from the realities that his racing series faces?

During a Q&A session at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the question was broached regarding the possibility of the Chase being eliminated, due to rampant fan disapproval. France’s reaction was incredulous, retorting, “You met somebody that’s telling you that?” The Chase has long been seen as France’s brainchild, the one thing NASCAR needed to be mentioned alongside other major league sports. Seven years into it and one guy has won it five times – and if not for some dumb luck in the final race, he very well could have won all of them.

That is not to diminish the work done by Johnson, Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team – or Hendrick Motorsports for that matter. Is there any other team in racing outside of Maranello that embodies the “team” concept more than five-time Sprint Cup champions? The only other driver and crew chief combo that really resonates the same as Johnson and Knaus is Petty and Inman.

The only thing this proves is that the system is inherently flawed. One team has successfully figured out how to be the best in the final 10 races every single year. As close and drama-filled as the 2010 final championship race was, it still does not come remotely close to the 1992 fight that went down to the closing laps between Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott under the traditional points system.

No Reich Turns

One of the more interesting tidbits of info this weekend was the announcement that Volkswagen is interested in potentially pursuing a place in NASCAR, and will be meeting with them to discuss this. VW is currently in a tussle with Toyota as the world’s largest automaker. If you thought the ire of such luminaries as Jack Roush and Jimmy Spencer were aroused when the announcement was made that Toyota was coming to NASCAR, imagine the furor of der Fuhrer-mobiles coming down south. How long until somebody cuts loose with some Battle of the Bulge or Dresden smack?

If one blows an engine will Mike Joy make with a V-2 or Messerschmitt blast? You can already hear cries of “Nazi-Car” when and if the German brand does come to NASCAR. Irony in auto racing will have reached a high point once two companies that were synonymous with helping to curb the tide of national socialism in Europe will be competing against them on the track – having had just been taken over by the federal government.

Shell Game

There were a few key personnel announcements at Hendrick Motorsports a couple of months ago. One was the re-signing of Steve Letarte as crew chief for the No. 24 Chevrolet of Gordon and the reassertion that Lance McGrew would likely be back as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. Well, both of those commitments were undone Tuesday, as it was learned that Letarte is now calling the shots for Earnhardt, Alan Gustafson will be atop Gordon’s war wagon, and McGrew joins with Mark Martin in his final season with Hendrick Motorsports.

So what does this all mean?

For Earnhardt it’s pretty clear – this is the best opportunity he has had to race and be competitive at Hendrick Motorsports, and he better make the most of it. Joining Letarte, he also joins Knaus and Johnson, with cars being prepared in what now will be known as the 4-8-8 shop. No more carping and moaning about inferior equipment or lack of preparation. The sister cars to the best in the business are being built just feet away by the same guys who have been wrenching on them the last five years.

Gordon should benefit from some fresh thinking and new tactics with Gustafson as his new crew chief. Gustafson has been with the No. 5 team during his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, and produced well with the cars prepared in the “other” shop in the building.

McGrew gets a major league reprieve from having to resurrect the career of the most popular driver in American motorsports, while getting a shot at helping one of racing’s most revered drivers win his first Cup title. Martin has historically had career years when welcoming a new crew chief; runner-up in 1998 with Jimmy Fennig, second again in 2002 with Ben Leslie and returning with a vengeance full-time in 2009 with five wins and another runner-up finish.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

If there is a feud that is most curious, it is that between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Harvick sent Busch spinning after being passed – cleanly – on lap 244 at Homestead this past weekend. Harvick said that Busch had been racing him “like a clown” while Busch called Harvick “two-faced.” Both drive yellow cars, are polarizing figures in the sport, and are Nationwide Series champions and Truck team owners. So why the sudden mutual disgust?

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If you really want to factor in six degrees of separation, factor Carl Edwards in the mix, who earlier this year deemed Harvick “a bad person” as well as “underhanded and cowardly.” Edwards drew the ire of Busch two weeks ago after allegedly jumping the final restart at Texas. Busch and Edwards have also had their mutual run-ins with Brad Keselowski this year, begging the question: Are Kyle Busch, Harvick and Edwards in some twisted dimension of time and space, all actually the same person? If I just totally blew your mind, I apologize.

Also, I’ve seen the movie Casino a few times (hey, I’m Italian, we all think we’re Joe Pesci at some point in our lives) and if I were Harvick, I’d be a little leery of strutting into Busch’s hometown of Sin City in a couple of weeks for the awards banquets.

With that, thank you again to everybody who takes the time to stop by and read my weekly article or my newsletter offering, What’s Vexing Vito. I have enjoyed bantering back and forth with all of you in the comments section, in email and those who are friends with me on Facebook. I would like to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah and a Happy New Year. I will be happy when it is 2011 – because that means Daytona is right around the corner.

This time, with no potholes.

About the author


Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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