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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Thoughts, observations and some questions from the NASCAR season finale weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Without a doubt, Tony Stewart's Nextel Cup title will be one of the more popular NASCAR championships in years. Stewart has become a huge fan favorite this year and this second title should put him in the same league with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon in terms of popularity.
It wasn't one of his most impressive runs, finishing 15th, but Stewart did what he needed to do with a car that wasn't good all night. Collecting 19 top-10 finishes in a 21-race span this season is a remarkable achievement.
In the postrace press conference, race runner-up (by 0.017 seconds) Mark Martin told reporters that Stewart was "the greatest race car driver of this era." Coming from a driving master like Martin, that has to be the ultimate compliment.
I'm still wondering why crew chief Chad Knaus kept Jimmie Johnson out on the race track after Johnson complained for several laps that he felt he had a tire going down. The tire eventually gave out, Johnson spun into the wall and his title hopes ended.
For several laps Jeff Gordon looked like he might win the race. The four-time champion's car was strong and balanced, allowing Gordon to run with the leaders all race long. His ninth-place finish doesn't reflect how good his race really was.
Gordon's strong rebound from a miserable season helped him capture the 11th-place points position, and Sunday's run marked his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races of the year. You absolutely have to figure that Gordon will be a real threat again next season.
For nearly the entire race, Stewart drove with no one around him on the race track. I would guess that not a soul was willing to get close enough to be the cause of Stewart losing his title.
There were two other champions crowned this weekend. Craftsman Truck Series champion Ted Musgrave finally won his first NASCAR crown, while Martin Truex Jr. made it back-to-back titles in the Busch Series. Both title chases went down to the wire and were decided at the final race – and that's the way it should be.
Sunday's race was relatively competitive with plenty of passing, reminiscent of recent stock car races at Michigan International Speedway. Homestead-Miami Speedway may just be the most underrated race track on the planet. It's not as wide as Michigan, but the drivers were able to race in three distinct grooves all day long.
Todd Bodine won his third Craftsman Truck Series race in a row Saturday morning, making it seven wins in 10 races for Toyota in the latter half of the season. Who knows how the CTS championship would have ended up if Bodine had been driving for his team, Germain Racing, since the start of the season (Bodine joined the team at Milwaukee, 11 races into the season). Bodine also finished 20th in the No. 4 Chevy in Sunday's Cup race.
Hendrick Motorsports distributed a charity CD to the media this weekend. The songs on the disc were picked by Hendrick drivers and others associated with the organization. Johnson's two selections still have everyone scratching their heads. One track was by Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, the other by Jamiroquai – both very eclectic artists, to say the least.
It's always easy to spot a driver who is auditioning for a job. This weekend it was Dave Blaney, who finished sixth on Sunday. It was the 1995 World of Outlaws champion's second top-10 finish this year. I hear he'll be heading back to Bill Davis Racing to drive the No. 22 Dodge next season.
The past two weekends I watched Deborah Renshaw, who drives the No. 8 Dodge in the Craftsman Truck Series, be a danger not only to herself but to the other drivers around her. She hasn't had a finish higher than 12th in her two-year NASCAR career; someone with her questionable skills shouldn't be racing in one of NASCAR's premier series.
During his final drivers meeting, Rusty Wallace thanked all of his fellow competitors and apologized for roughing anyone up during his illustrious career – except, he said, "if it meant I got paid more money." The room exploded with laughter.
Wallace's retirement marks the end of an era for NASCAR.
Sunday's race also was the end of Ricky Rudd's full-time Nextel Cup career. Rather than having a big sendoff like Wallace, Rudd low-keyed his retirement, which was announced only weeks ago. His crew chief, Michael "Fatback" McSwain, gave Rudd an emotional farewell, saying "my buddy is leaving me" during the drivers meeting.
Rudd wants some time off to recharge. Expect him to race again, part-time, in the future.
Looking ahead to next season, we just might see the most driver changes in the history of Nextel Cup. There isn't enough space to list all of the changes here, but trust me, you'll need a scorecard to keep track of them all next year at Daytona.
The South Florida weather captured nearly everyone's attention all weekend long, especially with the threat of tropical storm Gamma approaching from the south. The Craftsman Truck race on Friday night was the only casualty to the weather. The rest of the weekend was pretty much Chamber of Commerce stuff.
Rival has introduced a new line of crock pots that are the official slow cookers of NASCAR. They feature 17 drivers (Stewart, Gordon, Greg Biffle, Wallace and others) and an endorsement and recipe from Stewart's mother, Pam Boas. How perfect a match is this for NASCAR fans? Now they can tell their friends that their favorite driver cooked their dinner.
Now that he's the "senior" driver at Ganassi, Casey Mears has a newfound level of confidence. The former open wheel racer is driving with the skills of a long-time stock car racer. Mears collected his fourth top-10 finish in the last seven races on Sunday, which bodes well for Ganassi's struggling operation in 2006.
There was a lot of talk this weekend about the new NASCAR television package and racing in Canada. Expect an announcement within the next seven to 10 days with details on the new TV package, which will include some surprises. Canadian Norman Legault, who is the promoter of the Formula One race in Canada, is still searching for a suitable financial partner to bring NASCAR to Canada. He's getting close.
Canadian driver Paul Tracy was walking around both the Cup and Busch garages trying to get a ride next year in NASCAR. He told Canadian writer Dean McNulty that he expects to be racing in at least six NASCAR races (no series specified) next year.
Robby Gordon's web site reports that Gordon finished 13th in his class in the Baja 1000 on Saturday. Paul Menard practiced and qualified (39th) Gordon's car for the Cup race. Gordon flew to Homestead early on Sunday and finished 14th at HMS. That's a lot of racing (and flying) miles for one weekend.
Kyle Petty's wife Patty gave Stewart a lucky charm from her late son Adam with the inscription John 3:16 on Sunday morning. Stewart had it in his pocket all day.
Only 50 days until preseason testing begins at Daytona on Jan. 9, 2006.
Thanks for the memories, Rusty.