We're At Halftime: NASCAR's Biggest Stories of 2010
It has been said that history has a way of repeating itself. When it comes to NASCAR, it's not so much the moments in general that repeat themselves, but it's the overall facts.
In 2009, when the mid-way point of the season approached, the sport experienced many highs and many lows. NASCAR also had to deal with the harsh reality of an economy that was not doing well, and was costing them in terms of attendance, ratings and sponsorship.
Before the season started, the sanctioning body decided to try and rekindle the past by deciding to loosen the constraints put on the drivers. It was a sense that NASCAR had this "big brother" aspect where everything on-track would lead to dire consequences.
Not this year. Brian France, Mike Helton, John Darby, and everyone else involved with NASCAR decided it was time to once again let the drivers "have at it."
That notion set off a season that has seen a lot of moments that are still discussed as Daytona once again approaches. Although some moments have been ugly, some confusing, and others aggravating, they all were a sign that NASCAR is getting back to that old adage.
So many moments, so much controversy, and so many incredible events. The only way to sum it up is one word: captivating.
Here's a look back at the most discussed topics through the first half of the 2010 NASCAR season.
Danica Patrick Comes to NASCAR...and Struggles to Impress
She doesn't belong, she's here for the money, she's here to give exposure to the sport.
However, as the ESPN commercial states, "People like to talk...I prefer to drive."
Yes indeed, Danica Patrick decided to go stock car racing. Teaming with one of the most powerful Nationwide Series teams in competition, JR Motorsports. She had the sponsorship, she had the desire. The question was could she drive it.
Admittedly, when she debuted in the ARCA race, we all were skeptical. However, after showing composure in traffic, during a spin, and in a comeback, it started to look like she could do it.
But, then reality set in.
At Daytona, she gets caught up in an accident. At California, she struggles with an ill-handling car. Then, her gamble at Las Vegas has her roll snake eyes as she wrecks out early.
Fast forward to New Hampshire, where she spins early and finishes 30th.
The harsh reality is that Patrick has not impressed when she's stepped inside the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet. Is that to be expected?
To me, it is. She wasn't going to set the NASCAR world on fire right away. She is going to struggle, which she has, and it will take time for her to get used to how different the car is compared to her Indy Car ride.
Some fans wanted her here, some wanted her gone, and media blasted the idea of her coming to the sport.
However, Patrick made the choice to run NASCAR, and she's determined to succeed at it.
The Pothole: Racing Surface causes Havoc at Daytona
What was the main story we all discussed when the Daytona 500 ended?
Was it the close finishes in the duel races to set the field? Was it the fact that NASCAR's new "green-white-checkered" rules were getting an immediate test? Or, was it seeing Jamie McMurray win in his first race back with Chip Ganassi?
No, instead, we all were talking about a hole.
The infamous pot hole that had developed in the bottom groove in turns one and two took the lead in headlines. It was the cause of two different red flags, three different patches to repair, and cause a race that began at 1 p.m. to end past 7 p.m. in the eastern time zone.
It led track president, Robert Braig, to consult a crew to analyze the speedway, and eventually decide a repaving was necessary.
We all had to wait around for track crews to figure out how to patch a hole in the most famous track in NASCAR. It created chaos for television coverage, and for the fans in attendance, it gave them a reason to leave early.
Unfortunately for those that did, they missed out on a very exciting finish.
However there was one more loss because of the pothole at Daytona. That was FOX's cartoon character, Digger. We never saw the "Digger Cam" after that race. The only time Digger made an appearance was when FOX returned from commercials.
I think a lot of us miss that little scoundrel. Oh well, I'm sure he's doing well in retirement.
Up, Up and Away: Brad Keselowski Takes Flight in Atlanta
The Atlanta Motor Speedway has been known to be the fastest track on the circuit. Speeds nearing 200 mph entering the corners and not going below 170 through them.
So, when the Kobalt Tools 500 came calling, little did we know the speeds would also cause the most spectacular moment of the race.
Early in the race, Brad Keselowski got into Carl Edwards. It looked as though the No. 12 slid up the track and just caught Edwards to send him spinning. Edwards felt differently, and decided to get his form of payback on the race track.
The laps wound down, and Edwards was on track. He caught Keselowski on the front stretch, and got right into the corner of the red Dodge. Edwards drives away, and Keselowski goes spinning.
But then, the rear of the car goes in the air, it takes a tumble and hits the outside wall, roof first. The car was totaled, Keselowski was unhurt.
Edwards did admit it was payback, and he was parked. Since then, the probation that the two drivers had been handed has disappeared, and no on-track incidents have occurred between the two since then.
However, that wreck was the scariest incident at that point of the season.
The Spoiler Returns to the Sprint Cup Series
We all talked about how the wing on the Sprint Cup car was ugly, and how drivers felt it was harder to drive with it.
With NASCAR going back to their old-school mentality, they decided it was right to make a change and test out something NASCAR has been using for years.
Yes, the spoiler was coming back.
After the first test at Talladega, drivers said they felt a difference. Then, when drivers tested at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, they all agreed that the car was better visually with a spoiler and drove better with the spoiler.
The final race with the wing on the Sprint Cup car was at Bristol, which ironically was also the site of the first race with the wing. The following weekend at Martinsville, the spoiler came back.
We can't say that the racing has changed, but what can be said about the spoiler is that it has made it easier to pass and draft on other cars.
The fans didn't like the wing, drivers complained about the wing, so NASCAR decided to get rid of the wing.
I think all can agree that it was a great decision.
This Is Talladega: The Race that Broke Records
The one track that is so unpredictable it's been deemed the "lotto" is Talladega. It's the one track that every corner, every scoring loop and every lap someone different could lead the race.
I had the honor of being at the track for the Aaron's 499, and what I got was a race that set two new records.
The race went through all three green-white-checkered attempts, with Kevin Harvick just beating Jamie McMurray to the line. Margin of victory: 11 one-thousandths of a second. It was the fourth-closest finish in the electronic timing era for NASCAR.
But, prior to that finish, many other leaders had their turn at the front. By many others, it was over half the field. A total of 29 drivers led at least one lap, a new record for Talladega and for NASCAR.
The amount of times that lead changes was an unprecedented 88 different times. The race would end after 200 laps. That means the lead changed on average every 2.25 laps.
The entire time, the field was staying competitive. It was simply a typical Talladega race, a very uneventful first half and extremely exciting as the laps began counting down.
A record-breaking race, and one that will surely go down in history as one of the most competitive races in NASCAR history.
The Rise of Hamlin: His Promise Could Become Reality
Before the 2010 season began, Denny Hamlin told everyone that he had injured his ACL playing basketball. But, despite the pain, he was going to run the entire season and wait until after Homestead to have surgery.
When he won the finale last year, he said in victory lane, "We will win a championship in the next couple years."
An injury certainly would hamper that, but Hamlin ran hard and stayed competitive. He won at Martinsville, but had to balk and decided that the pain was too intense. After his win, Hamlin had surgery to repair his ACL, and we all wondered if he could still be as competitive as before.
A very lack-luster performance at Phoenix had us all believe he would not be the Hamlin from last year.
But, he won at Texas the next week. Two weeks later, he won at Darlington, one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. He then won back-to-back at Pocono and Michigan.
Hamlin was racing better following surgery than he was before. His promise to his team and his fans could become reality even faster than predicted.
Could it come true? Hamlin has nine more races to make it into the Chase, and ten more afterward to win a title.
In-Team Rivalries Create Great On-Track Battles
Let's be honest, the one thing NASCAR has lacked in years past is an on-track rivalry. In the 1970s, it was Richard Petty against David Pearson, then in the 1980s it was Dale Earnhardt versus Darrell Waltrip.
When the '90s rolled around, it was Jeff Gordon taking on Dale Earnhardt.
We haven't seen many on-track feuds between drivers in recent years, but this season NASCAR has seen a fair share of on-track feuds. What made it even more interesting was that these feuds were in-house, between teammates.
The most discussed has been between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Their battle at Texas while Gordon was leading got under the skin of the former four-time champion. Meanwhile, Johnson believed that Gordon should have just moved over because he was the defending champion.
In the end, Johnson finished second, while Gordon got caught up in a wreck. The next race at Talladega, the two battled and Johnson blocked Gordon below the yellow line. Two corners later, Gordon got caught up in yet another wreck.
After that race, Gordon made it clear his feelings toward his teammate.
"That 48 [car] is testing my patience. It takes a lot to get me mad, and I'm pissed right now."
After that, during the All-Star race, Hamlin and Kyle Busch got into a little run-in just as the final segment started.
A few laps later, Busch blows a tire in his M&M's Pretzel Toyota, and proceeds to scream over the radio, "Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin after this race."
It's exactly what NASCAR has needed for years, and it has given many fans a reason to watch every week of the season.
NASCAR Hall of Fame Inducts Inaugural Class
The one thing every major sport has is a way to honor the legends that helped build it. Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey each have their own Hall of Fame.
Finally, NASCAR joined those ranks.
In May, the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in Charlotte, N.C. It was a way for the sport to give back to its legends, and to its fans. The one thing that was missing was it's first class of inductees.
On May 23, that class took their rightful place in history. Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr., the men who started NASCAR and helped put it on the map, were the first honorees. Then there's Junior Johnson, great driver and one of the top owners in the sport.
Follow that up by Richard Petty, "The King." The most recognized person in the sport for over 50 years, he was an obvious choice for this year's class.
And finally, there was "The Man in Black." The man with a drive unlike any driver to ever grace a NASCAR track, the final inductee was "The Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt.
It was a moment that will never happen again. There will never be another inaugural class into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Running No. 3 at Daytona
How can one honor the sports roots? When it comes to NASCAR, driving a car with a retro-style paint scheme has become one of the more popular ways.
But, for Dale Earnhardt Jr, he decided to go the extra mile.
Outside of JR Motorsports, with both Richard Childress and his step-mother, Teresa, at his side, Earnhardt Jr. announced he was running a special car at Daytona for the Nationwide race.
With a little help, Junior pulled back the cover on the car and revealed a very special car. The Chevrolet Impala was decorated in the yellow and blue colors of Wrangler Jeans, just as his father's car from years ago.
But, what made it over the top was the number on the side. The car Junior would drive had his father's famous No. 3.
It would be the first time since 2002 that an Earnhardt would drive a No. 3 at any NASCAR track. The buzz was immediate, and fans were eager to get every bit of merchandise they could to honor the moment.
It will be for one race only, but in that once race, the Earnhardt name will be on everyone's mind.
Still the Man: Johnson Can Do No Wrong
Each year it gets said, and it will continue to be the truth until proven otherwise.
The only way to win the Sprint Cup Championship is to defeat the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. Unless someone does that, it will be Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and that entire team back at the head table in Las Vegas.
At the beginning of the season, Johnson got back to his winning ways right away. Five races into the season, Johnson had three victories.
Once again, that familiar song was being played as the team couldn't do no wrong. But, after that it was almost a reality check. DNF's, bad runs and hard luck met this team and it gave a glimmer of hope for everyone else. It was as if the "golden horseshoe" that seems to follow Johnson had been buried and didn't return.
But, the last two weeks saw this team get back to the way we all remember. He got his first win on a road course by dominating Infineon. Then he went old-school by using a little bump-and-run to get a win at New Hampshire.
The Johnson we all remember from the last four years has come back to pull within the points lead. But, there's still nine races remaining before the Chase. That is when Johnson turns up the heat to win his titles.
If anyone wants to beat Johnson, they will have to do it twice. Guys like Hamlin, Gordon and Kevin Harvick want that title, but they have to win two different seasons.
They first need to have momentum heading into the Chase, and then somehow keep it through the Chase to beat him.
If that doesn't happen, the "Drive for Five" will be complete, and Johnson will have another championship.