Thursday, November 30, 2006

Surprise, Surprise....Surprised?

What do you think was the biggest surprise of the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season? Fox Sports on line featured an article by Larry MacReynalds and the rest of the Fox NASCAR staff on this question, and of course I thought it would be appropriate to add my thoughts.
The larger consensus of the sports writers seemed to be Denny Hamlin. Hamlin was impressive, but not all that surprising. His performance during the last seven races of the 2005 season demonstrated that he was a force to be reckoned with. After cutting his teeth on asphalt short tracks, such as South Boston Speedway in his home state of Virginia--where beating and banging is the rule rather than the exception--he carried his talent smoothly to the highly competitive world of NASCAR Cup racing.
Nor was Tony Stewart's failure to make the Chase this year that big of a surprise to me. A disappointment, yes, but surprise, no. One of the biggest attractions of NASCAR racing for us is that the only certainty is uncertainty. Anything can happen--and a broken shoulder blade, running out of fuel at the wrong time, Greg Biffle, and an uncharacteristically missed set-up at Richmond were some of the things that happened to my beloved #20 team. What was more surprising was the fact that Smoke scored more driver's points during the last ten races than any of the drivers who were in contention for the championship. Still, considering Stewart's talent, it wasn't really that surprising. The elimination of such a talented driver from the champion ship contention was more of an indictment against the points system, than it was of the team that should have made it and didn't.
A bigger surprise to me was the breakdown of Robert Yates Racing. Dale Jarrett is a much better driver than his recent record has shown, and something was obviously wrong in the Yates camp. At the same time, another excellent driver from Virginia, Elliott Sadler, was nearly a no-show in the success column for Yates this season. Yet Sadler finished the season with Everham Motorsports, with some top ten finishes and some awesome runs, proving that the problem in the Yates organization was not the driver. It is almost depressing to think that a mere five years ago, Robert Yates had one of the most exciting teams in the sport, featuring Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett. Now, the Yates team will likely cease to exist for the 2007 season.
If Mark Martin's decision to leave Roush Racing in order to have at least a part-time ride in Cup racing didn't surprise anyone, we must be truly jaded. Initially, the idea was for "The Kid" to race full time for Roush in the Craftsman Truck Series, where he would have been highly likely to win a championship, with a few races in Cup and the Busch series. Martin decided that he would rather race in more Cup races without having to race full time, something Roush couldn't give him, and contracted with MB2 Motorsports for 2007, where he will race 22 Cup races in the 01 car.
The biggest surprise for me was the exodus of championship quality open-wheel drivers, AJ Almendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya, to NASCAR. Almendinger, who was the only American driver in the Open Wheel Championship Car World Series (Champcar) in 2006, demonstrated that he had a future in that series when, after being fired by one team, won three consecutive races as Paul Tracy's team mate with Forsythe Racing Inc. Apparently, that future didn't look all that bright to Almendinger, who has signed a three-year contract in NASCAR with Red Bull Racing. It goes to show that if you have the talent, there is money for you somewhere.
Montoya's defection from Formula 1 wasn't all about the money. His contract with the Maclaren/Mercedes Racing Team was due to be renegotiated, and he chose to negotiate with Ganassi Racing instead, in order to, in his words, "get back to real racing." This was surprising because all the Fame and Fortune in automobile racing is with Formula 1, or, at least, that is what we are lead to believe. A driver cannot be considered "the World's Greatest Racer" without F-1 on his resume. Even if Montoya had not signed with Maclaren, there are plenty of other teams who would have snapped him up for good money. Money isn't everything for Montoya, however, and he made the decision based on disappointment with the quality of racing in what is supposed to be the premier racing series in the world. It was no longer fun for him to participate in what has become a single file high-speed parade of ultra-expensive high-tech machinery. Montoya's defection to NASCAR has given our racing series the status of a true World Class sport.
Feel free to tell us what the biggest surprise of the season was for you, in the comments section, or on the poll, or both. If you want to vote twice, there will be a similar poll at the "Church of the Great Oval" Yahoo Sports Group, which you may join by clicking on the appropriate button on the sidebar here. Note: administraters are not always on duty, Yahoo tends to be slow, and there are probably other reasons that we urge you to be patient if you want to join the Church of the Great Oval and do not get approved immediately.

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