The Yellow Stripe · Dave Johnson · Tuesday September 7, 2010
Editor’s Note: Danny Peters is on vacation this week. Look for our lovable Englishman to return next Tuesday; for now, staff writer Dave Johnson fills in.
Racing is a tough sport, and running full-time in the Sprint Cup Series is perhaps the most difficult of all the different types of competition out there. Thousandths of a second are all that separate victory from defeat, heartbreak just one untimely bump or one misplaced turn away.
Of course, the sport has come a long way from humble beginnings, where laps and not car lengths determined that margin of victory for automobiles that actually looked like they came straight from the showroom floor. There are many well-written, interesting articles out there with a title that begins, “The Evolution of the …” You can fill in the blank with “Stock Car” or “Race Engine” or “Pit Stop.” Stock became less stock became the present day COT. Pit crews morphed from pickup crews to dedicated, trained acrobats. The process of refinement in NASCAR started from day one, and will always continue, while the tightrope-style balancing acts performed by teams have become as remarkable as they’ve ever been.
So pity that poor crew chief. Within all of those processes the leaps become shorter, the big discoveries fewer. Instead of chasing a tenth, you chase a hundredth, knowing full well that that under those other stones lay even more elusive thousandths that make the difference. And pity the poor pit crew members. The pressure to perform has now become immense. That never-ending quest for speed, that refinement process, has backed these guys up against the wall. The days of only the driver living or dying by a stopwatch are long gone.
Given that I have been watching NASCAR racing for nearly twenty years now, it was odd that during the race broadcast on Sunday night, a post-pit stop graphic comparing the breakdown of elapsed times of various crew members on two teams should grab my attention. The differences were measured in tenths of seconds, often an eternity for a driver at speed.
More so, it was more the reaction of the commentators that stuck with me. The “losing” pit crew was underachieving. They had dropped the ball. They were pitiful! Losers!! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!! Again, the difference was measured in the tenths of seconds. It allowed me a moment to think about what it means to be participating at the top level of any given game. A million little pieces must come together to snag the trophy. And with everyone so tightly bunched, with the secret edge a few weeks or months away from becoming yesterday’s news, the consequences of not pushing it to the limit and keeping it there are enormous. It’s not like baseball, where you can quickly recover from one small mistake to win the game. Instead, the NASCAR speed and efficiency to which people gravitate from success story to downright failure is virtually unparalleled in sports.
For Mark Martin, 2009 saw not only a return to a full schedule of racing but a return to form. Martin’s efforts last season brought a smile to the faces of many race fans. Five wins and a second place finish in the final standings are pretty impressive in the face of Jimmie Johnson’s ongoing dominance.
But here we are in 2010. After Sunday’s tough go round in Atlanta, race number 25, Martin sits a dismal 15th. The playoffs all but a miracle reach, there is nothing in the 51-year-old’s performance of late that says “momentum.” Contrast that with Martin at this point in 2009’s standings: 10th in points, on the upswing, and well on his way to earning another runner-up finish in the championship Chase.
What happened? Martin is one of the healthiest, fittest, most experienced drivers out there. He isn’t faltering in his old age. He hasn’t forgotten how to drive. Nonetheless, one day he’s the cock of the walk, and the next, he becomes a feather duster. Yes, it’s true the Kasey Kahne deal could have caused too much of a season-long distraction. But perhaps the No. 5 crew simply misplaced a few of those million pieces that make their complex chemistry puzzle work.
The other side of the coin from Martin is Kevin Harvick. At this point in the season in 2009, Harvick sat a lowly 23rd. To his and his team’s credit, they did pick up a few positions by year’s end to 19th, but it was a bummer of a season pretty much any way you look at it.
Yet here we are heading to Richmond and Harvick is on top, a multi-race winner. Yes, Atlanta was a race to forget (or learn from) but I don’t get the impression the Harvick crew is about to stumble with a regular season points title firmly within their grasp.
So you have to think that, no matter how things play out for Harvick in the remaining races, he’ll probably have a little more bounce in his step over the offseason, armed with a contract extension while self-doubt becomes a thing of the past.
Need other examples of drivers and teams that are riding their own version of the NASCAR roller coaster? Heading to Richmond last year, Clint Bowyer sat 16th and ended up not making the Chase. This year, we see an improvement: 12th in points, holding a cushion that should make earning another playoff spot little more than a mere formality.
Juan Pablo Montoya had few Chase worries when the green flag dropped on the Richmond race in 2009. He sat eighth in points and perhaps thought only of winning the race. Fast forward one year, and Montoya still has few Chase worries and perhaps still has a “win it or whatever” attitude about Richmond … for all the wrong reasons. He sits way back in 17th.
So in a season of empty seats, long faces and cynicism, let’s leave the “how do we fix it” debates for a moment and give some thought, if only for a short time, of just what an incredible thing it is to fit together the million plus pieces of the racing puzzle. All it takes is one missing piece to make the whole thing fall apart, whether it’s under the gun of constant pit stops or an untimely wreck that derails momentum at the wrong time.
But the beauty of it all, in a sport where change happens quicker than you think, is seeing everyone involved work hard to battle for that little extra edge.
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