Matt McLaughlin · Thursday June 24, 2010
To the considerable delight of some and the consternation of others, I’m taking a couple weeks’ vacation. But the “In” box of my desk and my email address are so full to the bursting, I’m going to do this week’s Thursday column just in an attempt to play Hercules and clean out those Aegean Stables.
It figures. A week after the Michigan snoozer, I decide to skip a recap and something of interest finally happens at Sonoma. I mean, what are the odds? Marcos Ambrose, a very cool fellow, seemed on his way to an easy win when bizarre circumstances cost him the victory. Ambrose shut down his engine in an attempt to save fuel, then was unable to get it re-fired before he coasted to a stop on the uphill just beyond turn one under caution. Talk about a WTF moment.
Some have criticized NASCAR for the call, but to the surprise of some I see this one as a no-brainer. All competitors are required to “maintain a reasonable speed” behind the pace car under caution. If Ambrose had slowed to a crawl, there might be an argument here. He came to a dead stop. Dead in the water is clearly not “a reasonable speed” unless Ambrose had stopped because a track safety worker or track safety vehicle had been in harm’s way. (Or a red flag had been issued). I feel terrible for Ambrose, and I would have liked to see the popular Tasmanian (not Australian) win – but rules are rules.
Some have compared Ambrose’s misfortune to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s win at Michigan or (especially) Greg Biffle’s coast across the line at Kansas – a win scored when he was clearly out of gas. But in both cases, neither car came to a complete stop. We can debate what “a reasonable speed behind the pace car” is, but clearly 0 MPH is too slow. And clearly, the No. 47 car came to a dead and complete stop before the No. 48 passed it.
What impresses me is that NASCAR made the right call. Clearly a foreign national, and a very likable guy, winning Sonoma would have garnered Cup racing a lot more positive headlines in media outlets less inclined to cover stock car racing than another Jimmie Johnson win. But based on precedent, when Robby Gordon was deprived a AAA win at Montreal after getting spun out under caution (by Marcos Ambrose, of all people) precedent had been set. For NASCAR to actually be consistent in its calls when the onus was on them to do otherwise is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps an apology to race fans after that bogus late-race “debris caution” at Michigan.
I’d like to commend Ambrose for a classy if delayed post-race interview following the incident. Clearly upset and angry, he spoke and used no language that you wouldn’t want your kid to hear. If only Kyle Busch could be as classy in defeat.
When Teammates Attack
It seems there’s been a lot of run-ins between Cup teammates this year. There was the blowup between Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in the All-Star race. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have had their feuds. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray have crossed swords. Scott Speed and Casey Mears tangled at Michigan (and it might have cost Mears his “Super Sub” status and, in fact, his entire Cup career.)
I have sympathy for Speed’s comments at Michigan. When two team cars are battling for 30th and waiting for needed adjustments to get competitive, there’s no sense in wrecking each other to add to the misery.
But when it comes to a battle for the lead, a top-5 or top-10 position, there should be no leniency between teammates. Your pit crew guys have been diving over the wall in front of cars moving at reduced, but still very rapid speeds to try to get you an extra tenth of a second. To give that tenth of a second up just to give your teammate a break is an insult to them. Guys back at the shop have worked incredibly long workweeks to give their car a small advantage. And you, as a driver, are going to give it away to hand a teammate an additional edge you wouldn’t have given another driver?
Then, of course, you have the sponsors. To cite one example of several I could use, you have Jeff Gordon in the DuPont car and Jimmie Johnson in the Lowe’s car. These guys are friends, teammates, and in this case Jeff Gordon is listed as the co-owner of the No. 48 car. But Lowe’s and DuPont spend zillions of dollars on their race sponsorship, and while the paycheck might be signed by Rick Hendrick in either case, ultimately the funding for each individual team is given by those companies. The winner of the race also gets the majority of the post-race coverage – nobody remembers who finished second. As a driver, you are out there to do your team, your pit crew, and your sponsor proud, the reason why you’re a candidate for an airdate on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Simply moving over so a teammate can pass defeats that purpose.
The worst case scenario of “team orders” (as we have seen in other forms of motorsports) is in the final race of a season, a teammate of a potentially title-winning driver will park his car to automatically award points to his teammate, intentionally wreck his teammate’s points challenger to alter the outcome of that race, or even give up the leading position of a race to let his teammate score more points to claim the title. The day that happens in NASCAR, I swear to ya’ll I am well and truly out of here for good.
When Jeff Gordon Attacks
What the heck happened at Sonoma? Did Jeff and Robby Gordon accidentally switch cars? While Robby drove onto a relatively clean and competitive second-place finish, Jeff seemed to have wrecked half the field with intent and malice during the race, a rather strange turn of events for a driver who, next to Mark Martin, had been considered one of the cleanest racers prior to this season.
Do you want any more evidence of Jeff Gordon’s desire to win races? It’s been a long time now. (Over a year). And that seems to rankle him, especially when his protégé Johnson has won four straight titles and beaucoup races. As a long-term fan, it’s hard for me to believe, but Gordon has been at this 18 seasons. He’s become one of the elder statesmen of the garage area, and – as much as it will piss off some of the ABG types – a true asset to the sport. Why? Listen to Gordon’s classy post-race comments about being at fault in his incident with Martin Truex, Jr.
So what do we take from Sunday’s performance, then? Yeah, I think the drought is getting to Jeff Gordon. It’s nice to see he’s human after all. Seriously, back in the salad days in 1998, did you ever think you’d hear Gordon say he was “pissed off” at a teammate?
Trouble Brewing at NHMS?
Bruton Smith is not a man to be trifled with, and his latest feud is with the police chief in Concord, New Hampshire. The billionaire contends that the necessary cost of paying police to direct traffic and keep the peace in the campgrounds for the weekend is excessive. He notes that the local police chief pays himself 50 dollars an hour overtime on race weekends, employing several family members as well who are well-compensated. In rebuttal, the police chief says that the amount demanded is fair given the fact any racetrack becomes a small city on race weekend. (Though allegedly, there were only 12 official arrests made at Loudon last fall… pretty good by the standards of a small city. New England fans must be a whole lot less rowdy than those at Pocono.)
Smith’s other contention is with the amount of tourist revenue a race weekend brings to the area, especially in this battered economy, the state of New Hampshire ought to fund part of the tab for the cops. If he doesn’t get his way, Smith has hinted he might move one or both of his NHMS dates to other, deserving tracks in his portfolio.
Is that a disaster waiting to happen? Calm down, New England fans. Smith will win this battle, and order will eventually be restored. When Smith was having problems with getting his drag strip at Charlotte approved, he famously threatened to shut the whole place (or palace) down and move to a new location. Local elected officials caved like a house of cards in a tornado in response. Years later, you’ll note the track is still there in Concord…
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