And just like that, we’re at the halfway point of the arduous NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule: 18 in the books, 18 still to go and just eight races until the Chase… and all the associated hype begins. As seems to be pretty much de rigueur with NASCAR across the first half of the 2011 campaign, there have been ups and downs, highs and lows, great races and eye-gougingly terrible ones: in short, a little bit of everything. So as we head into the second half of the schedule, starting this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway here are my midseason awards:
Best Driver: Kyle Busch
It was pretty much a typical weekend for arguably NASCAR’s busiest driver. Not only did he pick up a win in the Truck Series (his fifth victory in just eight races), Busch finished third in the Nationwide race and then completed the weekend with a victory in the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. The two wins on the weekend give him a grand total of 99 victories across the top-three series – staggering numbers given he’s still only 26.
Now the knock on Kyle Busch has always been his heavy involvement in the Nationwide and Truck series costs him in Cup, but at the halfway point he sits atop the standings with a series (equal) best three victories, 10 top fives and 1,060 laps led – Jimmie Johnson is the next closest with 473 laps atop the pack.
I’ve never subscribed to the theory that Busch’s nuptials have made him a more rounded (whatever) driver, but I just get the sense that this year he’s finally showing he can finish well with a “bad” car. That’s crucial, especially come Chase time, and my money is on the wheelman of the No. 18 Toyota Camry challenging all the way this year for the biggest prize of the lot.
Biggest Disappointment: Jamie McMurray
After a career year in 2010 – winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard and the Charlotte Chase race – the smart money was on Jamie Mac making a sustained push for a Chase berth. Simply put, it just hasn’t happened – not even vaguely. Mired in 28th in the overall standings, Jamie McMurray has just two top 10s this year (seventh at Martinsville and ninth at Darlington) and has been little more than an afterthought. After such a strong campaign last time round, 2011 has brought the amiable Missouri native back to earth with a rather large bang (or should that be wimper?)
Biggest Threat not named Jimmie Johnson: Kevin Harvick
Tied with Kyle Busch for a series best three victories, Kevin Harvick led a total of nine laps in said wins. That’s the kind of “closer” skills you’d normally associate with Yankees pitching great Mariano Rivera – if you’ll forgive me mixing my sports metaphors. After coming so close last year, Harvick looks poised to challenge all the way to Miami once again. Given Double J’s dominance these past five years it’s still hard to look past the No. 48 team (despite their pit crew woes,) but if anyone can do it, that man might just be Harvick.
Most Improved Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Before all you Junior haters start on me, yes, I’m more than well aware that Junior has had a terrible month, but there can be little doubt Junior is having his best year since his debut season with Hendrick Motorsports. In fact, he’s already equaled his top-five (3) and top-10 (8) totals for the entirety of last season. Will he make the Chase? Probably. But he does need to arrest the precipitous slide down the standings he’s experienced these past few weeks, that’s for sure.
My money is on the driver under the most pressure in the sport doing just that with a little help from his friends, and in particular his ebullient, jocular crew chief Steve Letarte. More than anything else, it’s just good to see a pseudo-smile on Junior’s face (just so long as he’s not talking about the two-car tandems at the plate races that is.)
Best Race: The Southern 500
Tremendous on-track action, a heartwarming first-time winner (Regan Smith) and a Busch-Harvick handbags-style confrontation to boot; this race had it all. Why this track ever lost a race date, I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand.
Worst Race: All-Star Race
There have certainly been some snoozers this year (Saturday night, for example, or Kansas) but the worst race for me has to be the All-Star Race. Talk about a damp squib of an event that utterly and completely failed to live up to the pre-race hype. Something needs to be done with the All-Star Race, moving forward, because fans won’t stomach much more of the tepid stuff we saw at Charlotte in May.
Biggest X-Factor: The Chase Wildcard
I wrote about this very issue in greater detail a few weeks back and the truth is it’s still hard to say how it will play out, but there’s no doubt the new rules regarding who takes the 11th and 12th-place spots in the Chase will play an increasingly large role these next few weeks. Should be fun to watch.
Best Regular Show: Trackside Live
Outside of the race broadcasts, Trackside Live is still the best NASCAR TV with its curious mix of conversation and sometimes unpredictable live audiences. It might not be a “breaking news” kind of show, but there’s something about the easy style of the format and the range of guests and regular hosts that just, well, works. I’m not sure I quite know how, but it just does and it keeps me tuning in each week.
Best TV Broadcaster: TNT
This one isn’t going to be long and it wasn’t particularly tough. TNT is, in my eyes, once again the standard NASCAR broadcasting should adhere to with the Wide Open coverage of Daytona being the template for how races should be shown on TV. They may not have had the best of nights on Saturday, one way or the other – and for more on the race, please check out my colleague Phil Allaway’s piece today and the excellent Daly Planet site – but overall TNT keep doing things right.
Memo to FOX: It’s not that hard, really it isn’t….
Best TV Special: The Day: Remembering Dale Earnhardt
To mark the 10th anniversary of the tragic and untimely passing of one of NASCAR’s true icons, SPEED Channel put together a one hour special on the 2001 Daytona 500. The show followed that fateful day from sunrise to sunset and featured first-time race winner Michael Waltrip giving a television interview to discuss the death of his friend, mentor and then car owner. For a man who likely talks when he’s asleep – his silence up until now speaks volumes for the respect he had for Dale Earnhardt. If you didn’t see the special, you should – 100%.
Most Dramatic Moment: Trevor Bayne
I’ll give a nod to Smith’s victory at Darlington, but in terms of sheer drama it’s hard to argue with Trevor Bayne’s remarkable Daytona 500 victory in just his second Cup race. That he drove the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 car to victory just makes it all the more dramatic. After the asinine pot hole fiasco of the year before, this was just the finish needed to restore luster to the sport’s biggest race. I, for one, hope it’s the start of a long and successful (and hopefully healthy) career for Bayne who is transparently one of the good guys in the garage.
Best Book: Michael Waltrip
The relentless self-promoting, sponsor touting machine that is Waltrip picks up this award (in albeit a very light category) but his biography In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day That Changed Everything really was a great read. Definitely worth a good look (or at least a long browse in a local bookshop.)
Most Amusing Moment(s): Kurt Busch tirades
Listening to Kurt Busch rant and rave really does crack me up. Remember this is a guy who last year, when griping at Martinsville about a wrecked race, called Roger Penske “dude” and still kept his ride. This year, or at least not until his resurgence in the last month or so, Busch turned the airwaves blue with his frequent and frankly childish tirades.
Best Paint Scheme: Harvick’s Black No. 29
Black as a primary color is a key feature of the No. 29 Chevy paint scheme this year, but I particularly loved the all-black paint scheme that Harvick ran for the Coke 600 with a tribute to the armed forces. That was one sweet looking car, no doubt.
Best TV Ad: Sponsafier
Love, love, love this campaign – simple as that. Now into its fourth iteration, the Toyota campaign – which allows fans to design their own paint scheme – is an example of a very rare thing: marketing genius. I mean, think about it for a moment. How many NASCAR ads leave you scratching you head or grappling for the remote control? Right, exactly. Sponsafier is almost the perfect way to activate a sponsorship and kudos to the team that came up with the idea. Long may it continue.
So there you have it gentle readers, my midseason awards. Let me know whether you agree or disagree in the comments section below.
About the author
Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.
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