With just two races complete, the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series is presenting new and unique challenges for the media.
On the track, things remain largely unchanged from last season, with Sprint Cup Series drivers dominating the action. Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway, Kyle Busch put a stranglehold on the field, leading every lap from the pole position en route to a convincing win in the Bashas' Supermarkets 200. Fellow Sprint Cup regulars Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman claimed the next three positions, with Edwards the only one to mount even a token challenge to Busch.
A week earlier, Tony Stewart carried the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway for the fourth consecutive season, with three of the top four spots going to Sprint Cup regulars.
But while the on-track results remain unchanged, there is a new dynamic afoot. Busch, Stewart and their Sprint Cup comrades are no longer eligible to receive Nationwide Series championship points, leaving the title chase to a group of drivers who have experienced -- in some cases -- only moderate success in the season's first two events. Reed Sorenson tops the Nationwide Series leaderboard after racing to a pair of impressive Top-5 finishes in his first two starts. He is trailed by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. -- who has authored Top-10 showings in both races to date -- and Jason Leffler.
Danica Patrick is tied for fourth in the championship standings, despite an average finish of 15.5 in the first two races of the year. She qualified fourth in the season opener at Daytona before slipping to 14th in the final rundown, and was a non-factor Saturday at PIR, starting 20th and finishing three laps down in the 17th position.
Not surprisingly, Patrick's showing earned her a lengthy, post-race interview on ESPN2. Viewers long ago became accustomed -- or perhaps resigned -- to regular, in-depth questioning of the IndyCar star turned part-time NASCAR aspirant, regardless of her competitive relevance. Unfortunately, ESPN2's latest contribution to Danica Mania came at the exclusion of drivers who finished much closer to the front of the pack, including Top-10 finishers (and Nationwide regulars) Stenhouse, Justin Allgaier, Brian Scott and Kenny Wallace.
Some rationalized Patrick's role in Saturday's post-race coverage by pointing to her fourth-place standing in championship points. They cannot, however, explain the failure of veteran Joe Nemechek -- who is tied with Patrick in championship points -- to gain even a moment of ESPN2's post-race spotlight. Granted, Nemechek ain't much to look at in a bikini, but if we're going to base our coverage of the sport on championship points in Week Two of the season, "Front Row Joe" deserved as much post-race face time Saturday as the GoDaddy Girl.
Others point to Patrick's on-track improvement as a reason for the continued media focus. Well, Landon Cassill seems to have upped his performance since last year, as well, with nowhere near the attention.
Admittedly, Patrick is in a class by herself when it comes to media exposure. Cameras flock to the IndyCar star like moths to a flame, no matter where she finishes. But at some point, the media must allow Patrick to become what she says she wants to be; just another racer. Danica was not the only woman in Saturday's race. Jennifer Jo Cobb finished 32nd at Phoenix, and received no post-race love for her trouble.
And honestly, that's the way it should be.
If you run well, you get interviewed after the race. If not, we'll see you next week, regardless of how recognizable your name is or how many commercials your sponsor bought in today's broadcast. Patrick didn't ask to be spotlighted Saturday, and she is not to blame for the media's continued obsession with anything and everything Danica. She is intelligent enough to capitalize on that infatuation, however, continuing to build her personal brand while determining whether NASCAR is something she wants to do on a full-time basis. Patrick is clearly a talented racer, but she is not the end-all, beat-all of the Nationwide tour, especially on days when she finishes three laps behind the winner.
It's a brand new Nationwide Series in 2011, with new focus, new dynamics and new stories to be told. And as the series moves to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for next weekend's Sam's Town 300, the inevitable search for balance will continue.