If you happen to be a conspiracy theorist, seeing Scott Steckly drive a Canadian Tire-sponsored car to the season title in a Canadian Tire-sponsored series just might get you working overtime on a hypothesis or two.
Unfortunately for the tinfoil hat crowd, the corporate backing of both is just a simple coincidence, even though a few still might conclude the fix was in.
"It's what some people think sometimes," Steckly chuckled.
"We are watched pretty closely by the NASCAR officials to make sure everything is done by the book. On the other hand, without Canadian Tire supporting our team we wouldn't be able to do it for sure."
A second Canadian Tire Series title this year tied Steckly with Andrew Ranger for the most championships in the series since it was reborn as the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in 2007.
NASCAR announced a takeover of the financially challenged Canadian Association for Stock Car Racing, commonly known as the CASCAR Super Series, in late 2006 and transformed it into a Canadian Tire-backed regional operation. Don Thomson Jr. holds the CASCAR record for most titles, winning that championship five times.
No matter how you slice it, Steckly had a stellar season. In 12 starts, he took three poles, three wins and finished on the podium eight times. He clinched the title in the final race of the season with a second place finish to point runner-up D.J. Kennington, who was the defending season champion.
"It was fun with me and D.J. — every week we were trying to outdo each other and be the fastest in practice and out qualify each other," Steckly said.
"We were going for bragging rights every weekend. He's a tough competitor and one of the best out there."
Steckly counted 1960 points in 2011, 79 better than Kennington. J.R. Fitzpatrick was third, 186 points adrift. Drivers get 185 points for a win.
One thing that always throws a monkey wrench into the Canadian stock car championship fight is a driver like Ranger, one of several road course ringers who get into the action and take away points from the title contenders. Ranger was a huge factor in the championship despite starting only four times, taking a pair of wins in Montreal and Toronto to go along with two poles in Montreal and Trois Rivieres. Ranger's Toronto triumph relegated Steckly to second on a day where he would have won had he been fighting only series regulars.
Meanwhile, Robin Buck took a win away from the second-place finishing No. 22 Dodge at the ICAR Circuit in Mirabel, Que., and also crossed the line first in Trois Rivieres, stealing more valuable points from Steckly, who ended the day third behind Ranger.
But on the days when outsiders get in the mix, Steckly said the key is keeping your eye on the cars that matter in the bigger picture and staying ahead of your championship rivals.
"You gotta learn to just sort of forget about it. We would have won in Toronto if Andrew wasn't there and ICAR without Robin being there, but they come to race and that's fine. They make us pick up our game," he said.
"If you are going to win a championship, you have to realize that on some days you aren't going to win the race and you have to be satisfied with a second, third, fourth or fifth place finish. If we can come out of the road courses with top-three finishes, it really helps our championship."
Apart from an accident in the Velocity Prairie Thunder at Saskatoon's Auto Clearing Motor Speedway and a broken wheel hub during the Wild Wing 300 at Barrie Speedway, Steckly and his team hardly put a foot wrong in 2011.
Nevertheless, he insisted that having to watch from the sidelines as the crew tried to repair your ride is never easy, even if it's a rare occurrence.
The Saskatoon race was particularly frustrating for Steckly where he got knocked out of contention due to a wreck 10 laps into the action, which forced his crew to change his car's radiator.
"When we got back out there, we were 30 laps down and basically all you are doing out there is driving around trying to gain one or two spots," he said.
"But that's where my crew comes in and does a great job. Being able to overcome problems and come out with a decent finish is a big thing."
Steckly plans to be back in 2012 to defend his title, hoping to keep Canadian Tire onboard and driving a Dodge Challenger again. He'll also be looking to pass Ranger as the all-time Canadian Tire series wins leader. Ranger has 14, while Steckly is tied for second with Kennington at 11.
"Anytime you can break or tie a NASCAR record it's an achievement," he said. "To win one championship was amazing and to do it again was a great feeling for sure and going for a third next year will be fun."
Great news for Formula One
After suffering career-threatening injuries in an Italian rallying crash prior to the 2011 F1 season, doctors treating Polish driver Robert Kubica have indicated that he should be ready to return to his Renault's cockpit some time after this season ends. January was given as the latest he would get back to driving.
The last hurdle was an operation to increase the mobility of his elbow, which was limiting the movement of his wrist and hand.
The Renault team has said that Kubica's seat at the team will be waiting when he is ready. The hugely talented 26-year-old was a rising F1 star prior to his accident. He won the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix for the BMW-Sauber team, which was that outfit's only F1 victory.
Kubica almost had his right arm severed when an Armco barrier pierced the underside of his rally car in a heavy crash. He spent weeks in hospital in Italy following a series of operations to repair the damage. In Monza earlier this month, Kubica's manager predicted he would drive an F1 car in October, although he said that it might be in a simulator.
Canadians take F1 in Schools win
Ashley Scott, Brett Coey, Dustin Sparrow, Hewson Elliot, Kaylee McNamee and Tyler Enns, better known as The Golden Geckos from Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School, Brandon, Man., took the Knockout Racing Award at the 2011 F1 in Schools World Finals held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last week.
While the Geckos' car was quick enough to win the Knockout Award, it could not secure the overall title, which went to an Australian entry.
F1 in Schools is a technology challenge for students 9-19 years old who create miniature grand prix cars made from balsa wood and powered by a single compressed air cylinder. It is supported by F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone and several grand prix teams.