Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday November 1, 2011
ONE: Chase Overshadowing Just How Good This Race Was
Tony Stewart’s unlikely come from behind triumph at Martinsville this Sunday earned a tremendous amount of airtime, both for how dramatic a comeback the No. 14 team made over the course of 500 laps and how Smoke is having one of his patented hot streaks at just the right time in 2011… the fall, not the summer. There’s definitely plenty of story there; Stewart not only stole the win from Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps, he also fired a shot across point leader Carl Edwards’ bow in Victory Lane, saying he wasn’t going to let the driver of the No. 99 sleep for three weeks.
What got lost in the shuffle surrounding that charge is two-fold. For one, fresh tires won the day on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson got ahead on old rubber, but when the pay window opened after a late yellow, Stewart’s two tires proved the kryptonite to Johnson’s track position. After seeing race after race decided by the driver that didn’t take rubber to stay out front instead of taking Goodyears and battling back through the pack, this change was refreshing to see.
And two, Stewart passed Johnson on the outside… at Martinsville! Martinsville! I’ve been following stock car racing for the last decade, and I can safely say I’d never seen that ‘till Sunday. Smoke is hungry, he’s got momentum, and suddenly he’s got all the makings of a Chase favorite. But regardless of the points chase, Stewart gave the fans their money’s worth this Sunday, throwing caution and convention to the wind and scoring a grandfather clock for his troubles. There really isn’t a racing ailment that a trip to Martinsville can’t cure.
TWO: That Is, Except for the No. 48 Team
The loss in the last few laps notwithstanding, the No. 48 team was in the Chase form fans have been accustomed to seeing from them the better part of the last decade at Martinsville. They led 61 laps and at the point when the race went green for the final time, it was Johnson sitting in the catbird’s seat. So what happened? As the driver put it in post-race remarks, “I just didn’t get it done.” There’s nothing more to be said.
The pit call that left Johnson on the track when every other leader pitted for the final time may have seemed foolish when the move was made, but in the end it had the No. 48 right where it needed to be. The pit move didn’t lose the team the race, and the driver shouldn’t be ashamed either… Tony Stewart had more to race for, and he made a move for the ages.
Still, despite an “A” game performance from the five-time champs, it was all but impossible to ignore just how dejected Johnson seemed post-race, and how forced his words regarding crew chief Knaus’ strategy call were. Johnson’s lost close races like this one in the past (who can forget Kyle Busch’s ramrod run past him at Chicagoland a few seasons back?) but never seemed as melancholy as he did on Sunday.
Reality is, the drive for six is over and it really seems to be taking a toll on the driver. The breaks aren’t falling to the No. 48 team like they used to. Going against the grain on pit strategy isn’t yielding trophies anymore. Laying back to avoid trouble in plate races and surging when it counts just doesn’t seem to bring the checkers their way. And now it’s been two years since Johnson has visited Martinsville’s Victory Lane, a huge deal seeing as how he’d won five of the last seven races at the track before this stretch.
2012 is going to be the truest indicator of just how great the No. 48 team is. Their five championships is an incredible feat and can’t be diminished. But how they respond to losing title number six will say more. If Johnson and Co. run as an afterthought the final few races of this season, then start slow in 2012, it may well be over for one of the more notorious marriages the sport has seen in its history.
THREE: Just How Bad Is It Trying to Find a Ride?
Take a good, hard look at David Ragan. The current driver of Roush Fenway Racing’s flagship No. 6, the face of UPS and the summer Daytona winner is making a Nationwide Series start at Texas… for the start-up Randy Hill Racing organization that, until this weekend has been fielding cars for ARCA development driver Casey Roderick.
Now, for where the team sits in both the ARCA and Nationwide Series garages, there’s obviously some money flowing into the organization. Despite lacking sponsorship, Roderick has made six starts across the ARCA and Nationwide Series for the team since the summer. But let’s repeat: a driver that was hand-picked to succeed Mark Martin’s legendary No. 6 is now driving a start-up Nationwide Series entry. It’s a ride that does keep Ragan in the Ford camp, but it also demonstrates just how dry the stables of rides are out there right now.
Ragan already spoke to Scene Daily this past weekend about his willingness to accept a Nationwide Series ride should sponsorship on the Cup side not materialize for 2012. But looking at the Ford roster in the Nationwide ranks at this time, Randy Hill’s car is as good as it can get; the only other Fords in the field are those of Go Green Racing, the No. 27 entry that J.J. Yeley has start-and-parked a few times and half of Rick Ware Racing’s fleet.
It’s hardly surprising that Ragan’s clock in the Cup ranks is seemingly about to expire. Ever since finishing 13th in points back in 2008, the No. 6 car has been completely irrelevant on the Cup circuit, UPS’ mega-dollar sponsorship has yielded next-to-no TV time, and Ragan’s inconsistency will all but likely doom that high-level career after this year. Still, he’s a Cup driver with a huge sponsor, a Daytona trophy only three months old in his case at home and someone that Roush Fenway Racing has stuck with for five years… and this option is what’s he able to get for a ride to sell himself in NASCAR’s AAA?
It’s not a knock on Randy Hill Racing at all, who as an organization is to be commended for finding a way to enter the sport at this challenging time. But it’s hard to imagine this set of circumstances playing out the same way a few years ago.
FOUR: Time for NASCAR to Adopt the Three Yellow Rule
Out at the local Winchester (VA) Speedway, a 3/8-mile dirt oval 20 minutes from my parents’ house, there’s a rule in place that once a driver is involved in three yellows over the course of a feature, they’re parked for the night. Considering that the track plays host to plenty of drivers making their first start of any kind in a race car, there are times when the rule is needed. After all, when the guy running 24th in a 24-car field is spinning every two laps and slowing the whole field, that doesn’t do anyone any good, be they in the stands or behind the wheel.
Where was that rule this Sunday, and why shouldn’t it take part in Cup racing? The much-ballyhooed incident with Matt Kenseth notwithstanding (one that may well cost Kenseth a shot at the 2011 Cup), Brian Vickers hit just about everything he could on Martinsville’s racing surface this Sunday. Out of 18 yellows that flew over the race, the No. 83 car was involved in six of them. Six yellow flags involving one car, including one inside of 10 laps to go that had a dramatic impact not just on the competitors directly involved in the incident, but the outcome of the race itself.
The way the Cup points system works, there’s absolutely every reason to keep a wounded car on track to log laps and score points. But six yellows, including as many as the No. 83 were involved in Sunday that weren’t spins, but contact and scuffles with other competitors, is just far too much. Vickers took out a number of other cars, had a hard time keeping his own machine in a straight line, and triggered an event that ultimately decided the race.
If someone wants to carve out an exception to such a rule that wouldn’t count yellows not of a driver’s making towards a three-strikes policy, so be it. But Vickers did absolutely nothing to add to the show, nor to his race team’s efforts, with the performance the No. 83 car exhibited.
FIVE: It’s All About the Wins
Fellow writer Tom Bowles pointed out yet another Chase fallacy in explicit detail in his column Monday by describing how Tony Stewart, despite having three wins in seven races, with no DNFs, is failing to lead the standings in a playoff system meant both to fuel NASCAR’s late-season drama… and to ensure that no driver could do what Matt Kenseth did in 2003 and ride top-10 finishes to a title with only a Vegas win in the W column. Yet, Carl Edwards is the points leader after playing defense to the tune of 11th and ninth-place finishes the past two weeks.
Which begs the question, why not just determine the championship based on the win column? What would be so wrong with saying any driver that contests every race all season and wins the most gets the Cup? It would place less of a premium on consistency, sure, but I don’t know many race fans that head to the track to see their guy run seventh — unless, of course, they’re pulling for an underdog.
What’s more, just look at the past eight years of Cup racing, who the drivers that won the most races are and the type of seasons they had:
2003: Ryan Newman (11 poles, 8 wins, 22 top 10s, 6th in points)
2004: Jimmie Johnson (1 pole, 8 wins, 23 top 10s, 2nd in points)
2005: Greg Biffle (6 wins, 22 top 10s, 2nd in points)
2006: Kasey Kahne (6 poles, 6 wins, 19 top 10s, 8th in points)
2007: Jimmie Johnson (4 poles, 10 wins, 24 top 10s, 1st in points)
2008: Carl Edwards (1 pole, 9 wins, 27 top 10s, 2nd in points)
2009: Jimmie Johnson (4 poles, 7 wins, 24 top 10s, 1st in points)
2010: Denny Hamlin (2 poles, 8 wins, 18 top 10s, 2nd in points)
Where’s the shame in crowning any of those drivers champion for any of those season-long performances? There’s no need to make this system more complicated than it is each week… laps in a circle, first guy to cross the line wins. The sport in its most boiled down sense is simple. Why shouldn’t the means of crowning a champion be?
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