Commentary

NASCAR enjoying best season in years

Updated: August 3, 2011, 6:54 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Hey, Mr. Negative, stop complaining.

Yes, I hear you: The races are boring, this car stinks, fuel-mileage races are awful, NASCAR isn't what it used to be, etc.

Nothing's perfect, as I often point out in my columns about the sport. But in the grand scheme of things, I see 2011 as NASCAR's best season in years.

Seriously, the good outweighs the bad by a big margin. Allow me to count the ways:

1. Fourteen different winners in 20 races, including four first-time winners -- I can't count how many times in recent years fans have said to me, "The same guys win all the time."

[+] EnlargeEarnhardt
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesTrevor Bayne was the early feel-good story of 2011 after winning the Daytona 500 in February.

Only two drivers this season have more than two victories -- Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick with three each. A lot of guys haven't won who still could win this year.

Who would have thought when the 2011 season started that Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan and Paul Menard all would have a victory, but Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Greg Biffle would be winless?

Jimmie Johnson, who has one victory this year, doesn't like the competitive balance, something you would expect from the guy who won the past five championships.

"The rules have stayed similar for a long period of time," he said at Indy. "It's allowed everybody to close up. We have great parity, frustrating parity from a driver standpoint at times.

"All the cars are running the same speed, which looks great on paper, but on the racetrack you can't pass. I'm hopeful there's a rule change and we have a chance to go chase that next chunk of speed and try to beat everybody to do it."

Count me down as hoping that doesn't happen. One or two of the 2011 winless guys will win before the season ends. Juan Pablo Montoya could win again at Watkins Glen. And, yes, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. still could find his way to Victory Lane.

2. Earnhardt is a factor again -- It's not looking all that promising lately since Earnhardt has dropped seven spots in the standings in the past six races, but look at the bright side: He's 11 spots better than he was at the end of last season.

And here's a little good news for Junior fans: Even though he fell from ninth to 10th in the Cup standings with his 16th-place finish at Indy, he actually gained ground on 11th, the first spot outside the Chase cutoff.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr
Jerry Markland/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. being in Chase contention in August is a good thing for Junior Nation -- and NASCAR.

He was only seven points ahead of 11th entering Indy. Now he's 19 points ahead of 11th-place Denny Hamlin, who holds one of the two wild-card spots for now with one victory.

Even if Hamlin wins Sunday at Pocono -- a realistic possibility for a guy who has four victories on the 2.5-mile triangle -- he wouldn't push Earnhardt out of the top 10 unless Earnhardt finishes lower than 15th.

There you go. I hope a made your day, Earnhardt Nation, with a little positive spin. Earnhardt being in the hunt for a playoff spot in August is good for NASCAR. That's not an opinion. It's a fact.

3. The wildness of the wild card -- Lots of winners, or potential winners, are only part of it. The new wild-card format is better than I expected.

The last two spots in the Chase are based on victories for drivers ranked 11th through 20th, so almost everybody still is a contender with six races remaining before the playoff begins.

Martin Truex Jr. is 23rd in the standings, but if he wins two of the next six races (a big long shot, but not impossible), he could reach the top 20 and make the playoff.

The wild card has completely changed the dynamic of the race to the Chase, giving hope to teams that had no hope in the past.

4. No gas and go -- It's all about the 2011 trend of fuel-mileage races. Yes, it drives me nuts at time, wishing we could see one guy just outrun the other guy at the end.

However, the gambling on fuel has added an element of intrigue.

The strategy on how to win, it's all changed. You can have a dominant car all day long and end up putting it in the trailer in seventh place just because you didn't use the right strategy at the end.

-- Kurt Busch

"The strategy on how to win, it's all changed," Kurt Busch said last week at Indy. "You can have a dominant car all day long and end up putting it in the trailer in seventh place just because you didn't use the right strategy at the end."

It made the typically dull Brickyard 400 edge-of-your-seat drama, with us wondering if Menard's car would run dry or Jeff Gordon would catch him.

And the boring Brickyard wasn't so boring on restarts when cars often got four-wide on the backstretch (unheard of at Indy), causing a big wreck late in the race.

5. The end is what matters -- Have-at-it-boys wrecks are down, which has caused some long and dull green-flag runs in the middle of races, but exciting finishes are up. Three of them involved Harvick victories:

• Harvick passing Johnson on the final turn to win at Fontana.
• Harvick passing Earnhardt with three laps to go to win at Martinsville.
• Harvick winning at Charlotte after Earnhardt ran out of gas on the last lap of the Coca-Cola 600.

You may not like pairs racing at the plate tracks, but the finishes have been exciting and surprising:

• Bayne holding off Carl Edwards to win the Daytona 500.
• Johnson winning at Talladega by .002 of a second thanks to a push from Junior.
• Ragan making up for his restart mistake in the 500 by winning the July race at Daytona.

6. Silly Season keeps everyone guessing -- Not since Earnhardt's big decision year in 2007 have so many fans waited, wondered and tried to guess where a big-time star was headed.

The Edwards saga won't go away until he decides between staying at Roush Fenway Racing or moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. And if he goes the JGR, the rest of 2011 will be interesting to see if his lame-duck No. 99 Ford team can win the championship.

It's even producing a little gamesmanship with one of Edwards' rivals.

"Let's say he's going somewhere else, they're done," Gordon said about Edwards at Indy. "I just don't see them winning the championship knowing that they're leaving."

Danica Patrick also has kept fans guessing about her plans to move to NASCAR full time in 2012. Love her or hate her, people want to know and they watch her.

There you have it. Half a dozen reasons the 2011 NASCAR season is the best in many years.

So stop complaining. No, it isn't perfect, but there's a lot more good than bad.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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