It’s been a quiet week by NASCAR standards-no major controversy, no big drama. In short, nothing particularly interesting. Certainly nothing earth-shattering enough to devote an entire column to. But there are a few odds and ends in my desk that I need to clear out before they fester. So here you have it-clearing out the desk, post-Martinsville edition.
Were the people who said that Dale Jr. laid down at Martinsville watching the same race I was? Seriously? Because I didn’t see a driver lay down. I saw a driver do everything he could to win a race and come up short to superior equipment. I saw a driver in his postrace interview who was disappointed in second place. He knew second place is the first loser-it was written all over his face. But the closing laps were certainly not driven by a driver who didn’t care. Earnhardt was able to get to Kyle Busch late and put the bumper to him to move Busch out of the groove and take the lead.
I can’t imagine that they didn’t show the battle on TV, but it was abundantly clear from the press box that Earnhardt tried to get back to Harvick to complete the slide job via a bump and run, but just didn’t have the car to do it. He was able to get to Harvick’s bumper in turn 2, but Harvick’s car was fast enough that Earnhardt simply couldn’t hit him hard enough to make the bump and run stick. Could Earnhardt have resorted to dirty driving to get the win? Maybe, if he’d been able to outjump Harvick into Turn 1, get the nose of his car in and put Harvick in the wall.
But is it wrong that he didn’t? No, of course not. That Junior has enough integrity to take second after a nearly three digit winless drought says more about his character than a trophy won by such tactics would about his drive or dedication. Since when is not resorting to dirty tactics “laying down?” Personally, I respect a driver who gives everything he’s got to win a race cleanly and falls just short a hell of a lot more than one who resorts to running the other guy over because it’s the only way he’s going to get it done. There’s a fine line between racing hard for the win and racing dirty. Not crossing it doesn’t mean the driver didn’t want to win, it means he didn’t want to win like that. And no, not resorting to dirty driving doesn’t mean a driver laid down. The better car won at Martinsville, plain and simple. Get over it.
NASCAR’s method of calculating pit road speed is questionable. Why exactly does NASCAR have to make things so complicated, anyway? First off, the sanctioning body’s explanation of why they don’t release pit road speeds makes no sense. When Jimmie Johnson complained after Sunday’s race at Martinsville that the numbers were not immediately available to the team, he had a legitimate beef. If a team is going to be penalized among 42 others, they should have the right to see their pit road time compared to those of other teams. Yet NASCAR declared that doing so would make pit road too competitive.
Isn’t pit road supposed to be competitive? It’s still part of the race, right?
On the other hand, there are an awful lot of teams legally speeding on pit road these days. Johnson said his team does it. Kyle Busch obviously did it Sunday. And they’re far from the only ones. Because NASCAR times pit road speed by the average speed across a segment of track, a team whose pit box is at the beginning of a segment can basically come out of their box as fast as they want, because the pit stop assures that they can’t go over the average time limit for that segment. All they have to do is hit their brakes before they hit the next segment and no penalty will be issued.
So why not monitor speeding the same way your local highway patrol does, except by using telemetry boxes instead of a radar gun, simply penalizing a driver who goes over the maximum speed at any point on pit road. That would stop drivers “cheating” their pit segments and eliminate any question of segment timing, and it would be something fans could easily understand and relate to. And Johnson was 100% correct when he said that pit road times and speeds should be immediately available to fans. If nothing else, it would eliminate the cries of NASCAR playing favorites-or picking on certain drivers-when they penalize.
It might be time to push the panic button At least if you’re one of a handful of drivers who were considered Chase locks this year. While there is plenty of time until the Chase, we should be seeing some signs of life by now from drivers like Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, and Denny Hamlin. All three drivers finished 2010 in the top 12, and Hamlin entered the last race of 2010 with the points lead before finishing second to Jimmie Johnson. Martinsville was especially telling for Hamlin, who has owned the track recently, but failed to crack the top 10 this week. In fact, Hamlin, Biffle, Burton, and Bowyer combined for 13 top 10 finishes through the first six races last year-and this year they have a combined total of four. Every driver in the top seven has at least that many on his own.
While it can be argued that bad luck in the form of other drivers’ wrecks has plagued the three, especially Burton, the fact is it doesn’t matter what causes the finishes. A bad finish due to someone else’s wreck is worth the same points as one caused by team error, and it’s just as hard to get them back. The new points system does illustrate that point rather nicely.
In order to climb over Mark Martin into tenth place and the last guaranteed Chase spot, Hamlin needs to beat Martin by 44 on-track positions in the coming weeks. Bowyer needs to beat Martin by 23 positions; Biffle by 39; Burton by 58 total positions. That doesn’t sound terrible over 20 races but consider this: Martin’s career average finish is better than any of these four, suggesting that over time, beating him by double digits in on-track position isn’t going to be easy. While the numbers can only tell so much, it’s apparent that these drivers have their work cut out for them. That panic button is at hand.
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