In the NASCAR world, we have a different name for that: December. It's the one month where all of us take a breather, clean out closets we haven't seen in 11 months and spend time running real-life errands, not chasing after people in the garage area. It's a time to start working on that to-do list, a haphazard collection of small things that'll only pile up the second Daytona comes around in February.
In honor of that concept, in a slow news week, let's clean up some odds 'n' ends still hanging after the Homestead finale. Here's what's on my mind -- and in the news that you might have missed -- as NASCAR's offseason hits full speed:
- Much has been made of Carl Edwards' two straight wins to close out 2010, with many labeling him the trendy pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson next season. But will that momentum automatically carry over into 2011? Minor rules changes on the CoT, like the new nose, may change handling characteristics in a heartbeat, making any gains in engineering a moot point by Daytona in February.
But don't just take my word for it; let's look at history to see how often a strong finish translates into an even better season the following year. Going back to 2004, here's the top point scorer over the last three races of each season and how they fared the following year:
2004: Jeff Gordon: three top-3 finishes, 255 laps led in final three races, finished third in points. 2005: Jeff Gordon: Nine DNF's, missed Chase for only time in career, 11th in points.
2005: Carl Edwards: one win, 176 laps led in final three races: finished third in points. 2006: Carl Edwards: No wins, 189 laps led all season: finished 12th in points.
2006: Kevin Harvick: one win, 252 laps led in final three races: finished fourth in points. 2007: Kevin Harvick: One win (Daytona 500), 271 laps led all season: finished 10th in points.
2007: Jimmie Johnson: two wins, 65 laps led in final three races: Sprint Cup champion. 2008: Jimmie Johnson: Seven wins, 1,959 laps led, Sprint Cup champion.
2008: Carl Edwards: two wins, 359 laps led in final three races: finished second in points. 2009: Carl Edwards: No wins, 164 laps led all season, 11th in points.
2009: Denny Hamlin: one win, 73 laps led in final three races: finished fifth in points. 2010: Denny Hamlin: Eight wins (career high), 1,184 laps led, second in points.
2010: Carl Edwards: two wins, 283 laps led, finished fourth in points. 2011: Carl Edwards: ??
So only twice in the last half-dozen years did season-ending shots of adrenaline actually last. And only one of these streaky finishers -- Johnson -- wound up strong enough to snag the Cup Series title. Truth is, it's harder to keep the mojo going than you think over what equates to a 90-day vacation, especially with a testing ban keeping opportunities to bond with your team to a minimum. Considering Edwards is on this list twice for the wrong reasons, you can bet the No. 99 is wary of a possible letdown already.
Looking for more statistical oddities? Let's find some from this season:
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. joined Matt Kenseth as the only two drivers to finish all 36 races. Yet he wound up 21st in points with just 24 lead lap finishes. Go figure.
- Despite winning the regular season points title, scoring 26 top-10 finishes and ultimately winding up third in the Chase, Kevin Harvick did it all despite having to pass virtually the entire field each week. His 21.0 average start was the worst of his career since 2002, good for only 24th-best on the NASCAR circuit, and included eight starts of 30th or worse. Maybe track position doesn't matter as much as we think?
- 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte went without a top-10 finish for the first time in his 18-year career running Cup. The best he could do all year was 16th at Daytona in July.
- Want to know why so much is made of "start-and-parkers," drivers that intentionally park their cars before the first pit stop to collect a paycheck? Joe Nemechek failed to finish 30 of his 31 starts this season, completing an average of less than 100 laps per race, yet took home a cool $2,507,920 in prize money. How's that for a full-time "job..."
- Whenever I talk Sam Hornish, Jr.'s saga, I'm reminded of how Michael Jordan languished for far too long as a baseball player while pretending his basketball talent no longer existed. With Penske's support toward IndyCar increasing, GM back in the game over there for 2012 and the number of teams and competition expanding, it's hard to make a better possible scenario for a Hornish open-wheel comeback. Yet the Indy 500 champ steadfastly clings to NASCAR, urging owner Roger Penske on to find sponsorship that would keep him racing stock cars instead. Huh? After three years, Sam, the last of which included one top-10 finish, you still want to press your luck in a vehicle that leads to your car getting whammied into pieces oh, about once a month? I just can't see this charade continuing too much longer.
- After I had a long talk with Brad Keselowski this week about new Cup Series crew chief Paul Wolfe, the running theme was how their success in the Nationwide Series -- where the duo won the championship this year -- has given them a long-term foundation to be successful in Cup. The driver, who ran both series full-time this year, is adamant that model's the only one that'll work now to get successful rookies at the Cup level, keeping their confidence high and sponsors patient while they continue to win in lower series. And as much as I hate Cup guys playing in the minors, for the young guys, he might have a point. How much easier was it for Jack Roush to justify keeping young David Ragan in the No. 6 UPS car at the Cup level, for example, when he was winning multiple races down in "AAA" last season? It had to hurt the driver's confidence level not to have that Saturday boost anymore.
- Explain this one to me, Red Bull Racing. You hire A.J. Allmendinger straight out of the open-wheel ranks, watch him struggle for two seasons, only to let him go in favor of another driver you pull right out of open-wheel: Scott Speed. You run him in your car for two years, again with limited stock car experience, and before he can turn it around you release him for veteran Kasey Kahne. Except here's the problem: Kahne's signed with Rick Hendrick for 2012, so he'll only be in the No. 82 car one season before moving on, guaranteeing you a fourth driver in that car's six years of existence. And that makes sense... how?
- Speaking of NASCAR losing drivers to the IndyCar ranks, Robby Gordon appears on his way out of town. Right now, he's fighting three lawsuits: one versus former sponsor Extenze for non-payment, a second versus BAM Racing for breach of contract and a third against Specialized Bicycles for copyright infringement over allegedly using their logo for his SPEED Energy Drink. None of them appear to be resolved in the near future.
His Cup program has sponsorship for only a handful of races, and multiple sources say Gordon has grown weary of trying to fight a losing battle as a single-car, independent owner/driver on the circuit. Off-road sponsors like Monster Energy Drink are the only ones helping keep the No. 7 afloat right now, hungry for the additional exposure NASCAR's fan bases gives their product. Without them, Gordon's car would have already been auctioned off by now, and I don't expect to see him manning the driver's seat much beyond the first five races of 2011. In fact, should IndyCar continue its upward swing, there's a strong possibility the former open-wheel regular might move in that direction for 2012 and beyond.
- The NASCAR-owned plot of land in Staten Island, once hoped to be the future home of a race track, is up for sale again. With buyer KB Marine falling through on their commitment, a property once valued at over $120 million is back on the open market, with no plans for executives to turn the Big Apple into a stock car playground anytime soon.
How quickly things can change. Compare that to five years ago, when then-ISC Chief Operating Officer John Saunders said the sanctioning body planned to have an oval in both NYC and the Pacific Northwest by 2011. Now? They have neither, just barely holding onto the financial viability of the tracks they've got.
- In five words or less, summarizing the early returns on the Hendrick three-man driver/crew chief swap.
Jeff Gordon / Alan Gustafson: Brilliant.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / Steve Letarte: Who the hell knows?
Mark Martin / Lance McGrew: The old man got screwed.