The Frontstretch: Five Points To Ponder: It's On, A Crew Chief's Plea, And Dr. NASCAR Evil's Biggest Mistake by Danny Peters -- Tuesday November 9, 2010

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In the past decade or so, the preponderance of mile-and-a-half, “cookie-cutter” circuits added to the NASCAR docket has been the subject of much controversy and hand-wringing angst amongst the rank and file that fill the stands week-in, week-out. The argument goes that these races are little more than 500-mile processions, more dependent on aerodynamic factors than the actual innate ability of the wheelman to navigate the track. From time to time, that’s certainly been the case, although let’s be fair; I don’t care what sport you like, not every game, match, race, etc. is going to be epic. Sport doesn’t work that way and frankly, nor should it. But give credit where credit is due because Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 was an absolute barnstormer of a race – an instant classic – some of the best competition we’ve had all year, without question. So let’s start this Tuesday’s edition of “Five Points to Ponder” with the big winner of the weekend: Chesterfield, Virginia’s very own Denny Hamlin and what his victory has meant in the 2010 championship Chase.

ONE: “It’s on…”

After four straight years of finding new and unique ways to decimate his Chase chances, Denny Hamlin sits in the catbird’s seat with just two races remaining. From the minute this playoff started, the No. 11 team, lead by the unflappable, calm guiding hand of veteran crew chief Mike Ford, has approached each race with a plan (and an expected finish). It’s a tactic that’s served Hamlin extremely well, thus far, although the real challenge is still to come. With two races to go, Hamlin has everything in place to win a maiden championship, but needs to withstand a likely charge by the No. 48 in Phoenix (where Johnson has four career victories) and the pressure of being the possible point leader heading into Homestead to get the job done.

At this point, though, why can’t Hamlin pull it off? Perhaps, more importantly, you sense that this season is the one where Hamlin has finally matched his burgeoning talent with the mental fortitude necessary to pull it all together when it counts. Fact is, even if he doesn’t win the championship and Double J picks up an unprecedented fifth crown (or Harvick pulls off his own first title), Hamlin has proved this year he has the patience and the cojones needed — unlike his irascible stablemate, Kyle Busch, which is where we’ll go next.

Kyle Busch might be the best driver behind the wheel, but he’s losing out when he lets his emotions, and fingers, get the better of him.

TWO: “Kyle, please, stop. We work too hard…”

So said crew chief Dave Rogers over the radio to his ranting driver on his anniversary of assuming head wrench duties for the No. 18 car. Now, there is a line of thought that suggests if Kyle was going to melt down, he did it at the right time — the race was lost, and the championship, too. But the truth is until Busch learns to control his emotions, he’ll never sit at the top table in his hometown of Las Vegas at the end-of-season banquet. No one can deny Busch’s indisputable mastery of a racecar, but flipping off the NASCAR official when you’re legitimately caught for speeding smacks of both immaturity and desperation. To some extent, it’s understandable – fans want the drivers to show emotion – but as with life, there is a time and a place for these sort of reactions and that was not, repeat not, the way to do it despite the fact that it was deeply amusing. Simply put: talent, however outrageous, will only take you so far. For an example, Busch needs only to look at his JGR stablemate to see how things can turn around, Hamlin’s immaturity eliminated with the reward of a possible title in 2010.

Busch has got two more races to start righting his own ship. Will he? Doubt it. Should be fun to watch either way.

THREE: Two unlikely pugilists…

While we’re on the topic of amusing things to watch, how unexpectedly cool was the fight between Senator Jeff Burton and the original four-time, Jeff Gordon? To see two veterans go at it like kids in the schoolyard, following Burton’s asinine move shoving the No. 24 into the wall in what was a clear fit of pique was as shocking as it was scintillating television. You have to hand it to Gordon for expressing his emotion (and wasn’t this the definition of “Have At It, Boys.”) Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a recording of the conversation in the ambulance on the way to the infield care center. The bigger picture, of course, is that these were two drivers who know their chances of running for a championship (yes, a fifth in Gordon’s case) had long since evaporated in 2010. The only real shame was that the zealous NASCAR officials got involved, too quick. I’d have loved to see some more action. Maybe there’s an offseason cage “rematch” in their future? Good times, folks…

FOUR: Dr. Evil makes a huge mistake…

Love him or hate him, the one thing no true NASCAR fan can deny about Chad Knaus is that he is an absolute master of strategy and forward planning – a crew chief savant, if you will. So, to see him switch up the No. 24 and No. 48 pit crew midway through the race was just mind-boggling. I don’t care what Knaus says afterwards about the two teams working symbiotically, that move was one of the strangest I’ve ever seen in my time in NASCAR. Yes, Harvick and Bowyer swapped pit crews in the Chase, but that was during the week. I’m not sure there is even a precedent for this swap (although I’m sure some nice reader will tell me why in the comments below, if it is indeed the case.) Now we learn that this move marks a permanent switch for the final two races of the season. Mystifying! Of course, if Jimmie wins out, as we know full well he can, he’ll win his fifth straight and everyone will be heralding Chad as a total genius. While that still may very well happen, you can’t help but feel a little bad for the now discarded No. 48 team crew. Bet the Monday morning meeting was a right bundle of laughs, huh? And speaking of laughs…

FIVE: Good job, Elliott Sadler…

As I’ve admitted in the past, Sadler’s form (or lack thereof, to be more accurate) has been low-hanging fruit for me as a columnist. I’ve poked fun and picked mercilessly on the veteran of some 427 races. I’m happy, then, to report on a weekend that was, despite a 23rd-place finish, a real promising one for the new father. First up was the news that Sadler will pilot the No. 2 CitiFinancial Chevy for KHI for the next two years in the Nationwide Series. As the man himself tweeted following the announcement: “Can’t thank you fans enough for your support. Means a lot!! Great day for Elliott Sadler fans.” Second, the pole position for the Cup race – his first since 2006 and just the eighth of his career – was icing on an already blossoming cake. “I’m looking for my first championship as a driver,” said Sadler. “We’re definitely going to win some races.” Here’s hoping…

And finally, one last point:

As a Brit living in Manhattan this past decade, whenever folks find out I cover NASCAR they look at me with a mix of sympathy, curiosity, and bemusement. This weekend I sat down to watch the race with someone who’s never seen it before and had wondered what all the hype was about. Suffice it to say, my brilliant friend is already a convert after just one 500-mile event. And that, gentle readers, is a very fine thing: a very fine thing indeed.

Contact Danny Peters

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
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The Kyle Conundrum: Sunday Meltdown Latest Fault of His Fire
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Texas-Phoenix Edition
No Bull: Two Blue Oval Men, Two Different Paths Symbolic Of Their NASCAR Season
Talking NASCAR TV: Focus Hurts ESPN Once Again At Texas

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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Jacob
11/09/2010 07:52 AM
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Danny, I can’t remember a single other instance of a crew chief benching the pit crew in any series in the last 30 years.
Of course, substitutions have been made following injuries, but not as a punitive measure. But I don’t blame Chad for doing it. Jimmie’s crew was doing a terrible job, and when (as in any other sport) the first string sucks, give the second string a chance.

Gordon82Wins
11/09/2010 09:34 AM
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Time will tell, but I think Chad was smart to bench the crew. Sometimes even the best teams just don’t have it that day, and if you have the opportunity to, you sit them down for a while. It’s not telling them they suck, it’s just, hey, you don’t have it today.

Carl D.
11/09/2010 10:46 AM
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If the new pit crew gains the #48 team spots in the pits over the final two races and if the #48 team wins the championship, Knaus will be be called the most brilliant crew chief in Nascar history.

stan
11/09/2010 11:06 AM
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The change of pit crews just points out that jeff gordon is #2 in hendrick. Gordon had better start fighting for his #1 spot in hendrick instead of wasteing his time battleing jeff burton.

Johnboy60
11/09/2010 11:08 AM
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Since i don’t agree with this crew swap, I will just pray that the Gordon crewmen, have balls and have really slow stops the next two weeks…..after all they are “brothers” with the crew they are replacing. And NO respect left for Jeff Gordon allowing this to happen…The felon Rick has done something to the whole of racing if they are allowed to get away with this!!! I don’t watch much anymore anyway, so I can now go to just reading Frontstretch for info……..

RamblinWreck
11/09/2010 11:18 AM
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Johnboy60-

Bingo. The crew switch was a much bigger insult to Gordon than to Jimmie’s crew. “Hey, Jeff, JJ and Chad need your team… hope you don’t mind, since you don’t get a vote anyway.”

Marilyn
11/09/2010 11:29 AM
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I still cannot believe that Nascar let them switch pit crews during the middle of a race!!!
I sure hope to hell that JJ does not win the championship….I feel so bad for his pit crew.
They must be feeling worthless…SHAME ON YOU NASCAR…….

John McManus
11/09/2010 11:36 AM
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Didn’t Ricky Rudd “fire” his pit crew during a race (he was the team owner) and tell his crew chief to find new people?

Mike In NH
11/09/2010 11:44 AM
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Hopefully karma will suitably penalize JJ & Chad for failing to “dance with the ones what brung ya” for the final two races. How is it suddenly they suck after being great all year? I think Dr Evil finally pushed it too far with those guys and they kicked back. I also will be interested to see how JG’s crew react the first time Chad gets on their case for a mistake – because they WILL make a mistake…

Bob
11/09/2010 12:17 PM
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AJ Foyt fired his crew on TV at Daytona. They forgot to put the pin in that held the steering wheel on. Needless to say the interview was done at the infield care center.

Bill B
11/09/2010 12:26 PM
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Just for the record Jeff is a company man. If he has a tatoo anywhere I’d bet it says HMS. And you know what, he should be a company man. If someone gave me the opportunity and equipment to become as rich as Gordon is, I’d be a company man too. Now, who out there will tell me that if someone gave you 20 million dollars you wouldn’t let them tattoo their initials on your ass (as long as that was the only thing they were doing back there LOL).

Spencer
11/09/2010 12:34 PM
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1. Denny Hamlin can only win this championship if Johnson and Harvick screw up. Hamlin still lacks the mental toughness and self confidence. Just look how surprised he is when he does well.

2. Kyle is unmanageable and should be cut loose by Gibbs and his sponsors. He has no respect for anyone, not even himself. Let’s see how the Kyle loving media machine spins this one after a whole season of “he’s matured so much” bull hockey. As such a disagreeable human being, people only cheer Kyle because he wins races. When his streak chills, as his brother’s has, the sound of boos will be replaced by the sound of apathy. I heard it Sunday when they announced Kurt, formerly villian number 1. Now there’s just some polite applause and people forget to boo. Ouch. They cheered louder for Elliott Sadler who hasn’t won in, how long? But they cheer Elliott because he’s not a horse’s behind. I guess Kyle would rather just win than be liked, but when he’s got crap equipment because nobody with deep pockets wants the headaches that come with sponsoring such a trainwreck he’ll wish for uncharred bridges.

3. The number one comment I heard in the stands at TMS after the fight was “Dang, I didn’t know Gordon had it in him!” He won over a few haters with that one. Crowd loved it.

4. Chad Knauss has won 4 championships. I figure he knows what he’s doing more than I do. And weren’t some of Gordon’s crew guys formerly with Johnson anyhow? I don’t think this is as big a deal as some are making it. IMHO.

5. Did you have a British flag flying on your truck in the parking lot at TMS? Cuz if that was you, we parked across from you and had a brief chat before the race. It was a terrific day!

Don Mei
11/09/2010 02:29 PM
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Susan, a momentary bout of immaturity is considerably different than a constant, never-ending display of immaturity. Just think back to the infantile destruction of the guitar for starters.

glenn
11/09/2010 03:33 PM
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question is how does Joe Gibbs continue to watch this? He got involved when Tony was out of control, I don’t get it. sure flies in the face of his upright moral image.

Bill B
11/09/2010 03:56 PM
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Gibb’s moral image is just that an “image”. When it comes to business, dollars and cents, he is the same as everyone else. He wasn’t going to sit Tony down and he will not sit Kyle down unless the sponsor demands it. I’m not saying I blame him but then I don’t go around promoting myself as any more ethical or moral than the next guy.

phil h
11/10/2010 12:12 AM
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Danny….so glad your friend is now a fan of the greatest sport on earth! Brilliant!!

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