As 2011 comes to a close, it’s only fitting that Tony Stewart was the driver to end Jimmie Johnson’s five year reign, since he was the last driver to win a championship before it started. Also, if you didn’t enjoy that championship battle between Stewart and Carl Edwards, then you should probably quit watching because it won’t ever get any better than that.
All three of NASCAR’s title fights were memorable in their own way, from beginning to end, with many new faces finding their way to Victory Lane and several rivalries putting the “Boys, have at it” mantra front and center.
Missing from that “front and center”, though, were drivers who just needed the finish out the year on a high note with most looking to Homestead for a chance at redemption. While it’s obvious that the likes of Stewart and Edwards soared, others aren’t so obvious. So for the final time this season, let’s crunch some numbers and look at drivers who finished the year Hot… and those who were Not, and need to improve in 2012.
*Martin Truex Jr.* – Truex made some noise in the final few weeks of the 2011 season, and not just for fine-tuning his lip-syncing skills for the NAPA commercials. After earning only 7 top 10s in the first 31 races of the season, Truex finished out the year with four top 10s in the last five events including a third-place run at Homestead.
It’s been a long year for Truex, who has seen three different crew chiefs atop the pit box this season. After running the first 13 races with Pat Tryson, Michael Waltrip Racing decided a change was in order (the team had only three top 10s and was outside the top 20 in points), and Chad Johnston was named as the man calling the shots. The situation didn’t improve much as Truex stayed right around 20th in points, and it wasn’t until a third crew chief was named that Truex started improving.
While Johnston was serving a suspension after NASCAR discovered illegal windshields on Truex and his teammates’ cars in Talladega, Tryson was called back to serve as a temporary replacement in Martinsville where the team finished 8th. MWR competition director Scott Miller called the final three races of the season and helped propel the No. 56 car back into the top 20 in points.
The hot streak happened too late to say Truex could be a dark horse Chase contender in 2012, but whatever they hit on in the final few races, they need to make note of.
Additionally, Truex will have some quality teammates to work with next season. Clint Bowyer is set to drive the No. 15 full-time for MWR and Mark Martin will be in a car on a part-time basis. Could 2012 be the year MWR proves they “KNOW HOW” to win races and make the Chase? We’ll see.
*Jeff Gordon* – To say 2011 was an up-and-down year for Gordon would be an understatement. While winning three races, averaging a finish of 13th, and finishing eighth in points might look good on paper, the nine finishes outside the top 20 show some of the more challenging times for the four-time champion.
2011 brought changes to the top of the No. 24 pit box, with Alan Gustafson moving over from Mark Martin’s No. 5 team to work with Gordon. The pair found success right out of the gate by winning the second race of the season in Phoenix, but too soon found some tough results mixed in with the victory.
However, a 14-race stretch from Kansas to Richmond saw Gordon finish inside the top 10 in 11 of them and many of us assumed Gordon would be Jimmie Johnson’s biggest threat for the title once the Chase started. Little did we know that not only would Gordon would suffer quite a bit of hard luck once the Chase began, but Jimmie Johnson would have absolutely no say in the championship either.
However, when Gustafson and Gordon weren’t dealing with blown engines or getting caught in wrecks not of their own doing, they were solid and competitive and I see no reason why they can’t do the same thing in 2012. In fact, now that Johnson is off his throne, Gordon and Gustafson can work on tying up the number of championships between the two. I’m pretty sure Gordon has at least one more good fight left in him.
*Honorable Mention:* Appearing in this column for the final time this season is 2011 Nationwide Series champion *Ricky Stenhouse Jr.” After watching Stenhouse blossom into the driver he is today, he deserves one final nod as we head into the cold December months. It’s not easy to be a competitive Nationwide Series regular anymore with the Cup Series guys taking over almost every week, but he somehow managed to win three races and race up front with the best of them many, many times. In 2010 I could never have pictured myself saying this, but Stenhouse definitely has a bright future ahead of him.
*Kasey Kahne* – When it was announced that Kahne was using Red Bull Racing as a “go-between” as he moved from Richard Petty Motorsports to Hendrick Motorsports, I couldn’t help but think he’d struggle. There was no reason to think RBR would put many of their resources into a driver who was leaving after only a one-year commitment, and the team had never been very competitive in the first place.
As expected, Kahne struggled for most of 2011 and spent most weeks riding around mid-pack. A few top 10s here and there were enough to stay relevant but not enough to make the Chase.
Apparently someone forgot to tell Kahne that, though, as he earned results better than several drivers who _did_ make the Chase, finishing seventh or better in seven of the 10 Chase races including a victory at Phoenix. That’s right. Kahne actually won a race this season!
Suddenly Rick Hendrick looks more like a genius, and my crystal ball has reserved itself a corner spot in the attic.
*Denny Hamlin* – Arguably the biggest disappointment of 2011, Hamlin followed last season that saw him finish second in points with only winning one race and finishing ninth in points this year. After a heartbreaking loss to Jimmie Johnson in 2010, Hamlin was supposed to pick himself up by the bootstraps and come back and once again make a run at the title.
Instead, he belly-flopped. Yes there are multiple drivers who would love to have the kind of season Hamlin did, but Hamlin is a championship level driver. He has all the necessary resources and funding behind him and, while I understand it’s difficult to maintain such a huge amount of success from year to year (Johnson’s titles aside), the difference between Hamlin’s 2010 and 2011 is like night and day. The only similarity is that he still somehow made the Chase.
The one variable I can point to as an explanation is that Hamlin took the loss pretty hard. Throughout the championship celebrations in Las Vegas, Hamlin was rather forlorn and frustrated. And he never seemed to recover from what was a huge missed opportunity in Homestead.
What Hamlin needs to remember, though, is he has the opportunity to make up for it and needs to take it. I’m not saying he completely gave up, as I’m sure that Hamlin and Mike Ford wanted to repeat their success, but you have to approach it with the right attitude. Maybe distancing himself from the whole thing will be good for him, and starting fresh in 2012 will bring back the Hamlin of old. Heck, with Kyle Busch continuously acting out, Hamlin is the only shot Joe Gibbs Racing has!
*Honorable Mention:* Who knew that “two steps forward, one step back” could actually be a _good_ thing? *Elliott Sadler* enjoyed the most competitive season of his career in 2011, and all it took was moving from the Sprint Cup Series down to a competitive ride in the Nationwide Series. Though he never made it to Victory Lane, a runner-up spot in the standings to Stenhouse was all it took for fans to recognize Sadler’s previously hidden talents for the first time in years.
*Joey Logano* – Another disappointing season for a driver with such promise early on in his career.
No, really, Mark Martin all but promised us this guy would be a star. Instead, Logano only earned 6 top 10 results all season and wound up outside the top 20 in points. Meanwhile, both of his teammates made the Chase and won three races between the two of them.
I know I pick on Logano quite a bit and I don’t mean to single him out, but how long can the “moving him up to Cup too soon” excuse be made before the 21-year-old driver is expected to perform? I won’t pretend to know what Joe Gibbs is saying to him behind the scenes or what is being done to help out, but eventually the driver is going to need to prove that he belongs there. It’s been three full seasons now, and I think that’s more than enough.
Apparently Home Depot and Dollar General disagree, though, as Home Depot is continuing to put money into the program and Dollar General has been added on as a new sponsor. That’s great for Logano, but it’s hard for me to imagine Home Depot happy with the performance while Lowe’s has been winning races and championships and their former driver Tony Stewart just won a third title. Who knows, maybe Logano’s tweenaged fan base has helped drive more customers (i.e., their parents) to more stores.
*David Reutimann* – Reutimann has a lot of work to do over the offseason, and it has nothing to do with performance. Instead, Reutimann will be on the hunt for a new ride as MWR made him aware that he would not be returning to the organization just a few weeks ago.
When he brings his results column to potential owners and sponsors, though, I would imagine they would be left unimpressed. Reutimann finished in the top 10 only three times all season and had an average result of 22nd. A penalty at Talladega for unapproved windshields didn’t help matters, and it looks like the Sprint Cup Series will be Reutimann-free next year.
However, the Zephyrhills, Florida native has had some success in the Nationwide Series and did well during the years where he ran the series full-time. As Sadler has shown, sometimes running in a lesser series can be revitalizing to a career, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Reutimann in a Nationwide Series car in 2012. As far as Sprint Cup, however, I’d be surprised if he was in anything higher quality than a start-and-park ride.
*Honorable Mention:* This may have been Menard’s best season numbers-wise, but that’s not saying much considering he had never finished the season inside the top 20 in points. He earned 17th this time around and even won a race at Indianapolis for his first career win. I’ll give Menard credit for showing some potential, but he has a long way to go before he will be considered competitive.
*Kurt Busch* – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see this one coming. There is a reason Jimmy Spencer sarcastically refers to Busch as a “radio sweetheart” and it’s not because of his witty one-liners. It’s because of the excessive profanities flowing from Busch’s mouth to the team’s ears. It used to be funny, but now it only infuriates me. How a driver can consistently say the things he does to his team—people who spend far more time in the garage area and at the shop than he does for considerably less pay, I have no doubt—is beyond me.
There is a huge difference between a driver expressing frustration and what Busch does. He chews out his team for every little misstep and only gives them credit when they win races (which happened only twice). Since he only finished inside the top 20 five times during the Chase, I’m surprised the elder Busch doesn’t have laryngitis by now.
Busch has the talent to contend in the Chase. Heck, he won the first installment of it back in 2004. But this is not the way to do it, and he won’t get any better until he lets up on the profanities. That’s not the way “team” works, and the sooner Busch learns this, the sooner they can work on getting back on top of the standings.
*David Ragan* – Ragan managed to win his first career race this year, but that wasn’t enough for him to keep his ride. On Monday, team owner Jack Roush released some pretty harsh statements regarding Ragan’s performance and it all but sealed the Georgia native’s fate at the organization. With UPS moving over to Edwards’ car, that leaves Ragan without a sponsor in 2012 and now it looks like he’ll be left out in the cold in Daytona without some mercy from another race team.
I can’t say I’m surprised by the announcement, though, nor do I disagree with it. This is a performance-based industry and Ragan simply hasn’t performed. Roush Fenway Racing is one of the top organizations in NASCAR, with the team winning the driver’s title this season in the Nationwide Series and losing a tiebreaker for it in the Sprint Cup Series. Ragan didn’t even win a race until last summer.
The thing is, Roush was more than patient with Ragan. 2011 was the 25-year-old’s fifth full-time season and he has never shown any signs of improvement. His best season was back in 2008 where he wound up 13th in points and had an average finish of 16th. That was impressive for a sophomore-level driver, but he’s only gotten worse since then.
As I’ve said with Logano, I don’t buy the “he was moved up too fast” excuse. Ragan has had more than enough opportunities to improve and was given ample time to build upon the experience he already had and it never happened. Ragan was never more than an afterthought in the RFR camp, and was only made useful when the team needed engines or setups tested or when a fellow Ford driver needed assistance at Talladega or Daytona.
It’s a shame that Ragan has been the butt of so many jokes lately, but Roush can’t sit by and make excuses for him anymore. Maybe he’ll find a competitive Nationwide or Truck Series ride and get a chance to start over.
*Honorable Mention:* Like Ragan, *Marcos Ambrose* was able to snag his first career victory but never accomplished much else. A few top 10s and laps led here and there reminded us of the Aussie’s presence, but otherwise he remained a mid-pack driver for much of 2011.
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