To be honest the trend didn’t start this weekend and, in fact, some drivers have been blubbering over how they felt ill-treated after races for a decade. This weekend, however, the drivers doing the most whining both enjoyed decent finishes in cars that were practically pristine. They didn’t crawl out of wrecked, smoking racecars laying on their roof with a 35th place finish.
Mind you I love seeing displays of genuine human emotion from the drivers during and after a race. But I want to hear raised voices, genuine anger, and maybe a little pushing and shoving, if not a flat out fistfight. I don’t want to listen to a pair of drivers sounding like my two youngest sisters squabbling over who had to sit in the puke seat in the Vista Cruiser back in the day.
The two big “fights” that come readily to mind over the last year involved Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. The Gordon/Burton dustup basically involved Gordon shoving Burton in the chest. If a pair of first graders faced off in a similar match they might have gotten a time out on the playground, but not a detention. The Harvick/Busch incident involved Harvick throwing a few punches at a still helmeted opponent until Busch put his car in gear, drove into the back of the No. 29, moving it out of the way and drove off. Neither incident warrants comparison to the end of the 1976 Daytona 500.
Saturday night’s Nationwide race from Iowa was one for the ages. Besides the dramatic and unexpected finish you’ve no doubt seen on the highlight reels, there was a lot of good action going on throughout most of the race. Not unexpectedly Carl Edwards was fast. But running up front and ready to challenge him for the win was young Ricky Stenhouse. That’s not surprising. The Roush Fords have been running great this year on the AAA series. Edwards took the lead on lap 107 and Stenhouse began reeling him in. If the pass for the lead Stenhouse finally made on lap 154 wasn’t picture perfect, it was relatively clean and effective. But Stenhouse carried too much speed into the corner and Edwards decided to try the old crossover move diving below his teammate to retake the lead. What a novel idea. You just passed me and I’d like the lead back. It sounds almost like auto racing.
During the ensuing exchange Edwards lightly bumped into Stenhouse’s Ford right behind the number on the door with his left rear wheel. It didn’t even leave a real doughnut on the side on the side of the No. 6, just sort of a ghostly black ring. If anyone was going to suffer damage as a result of the incident it would have been Edwards who risked cutting down a tire. That, my friends, is stock car racing. Some metal is going to get bent, some tires are going to smoke.
Stenhouse went back into the lead almost immediately. No harm, no foul, right? That wasn’t Mr. Stenhouse’s opinion. Listening to him on the radio you’d have though Carl launched him into the grandstands upside down and on fire.
Now some star drivers have been around long enough they can almost be forgiven for forgetting how privileged they are to have attained a dream they clutched to since childhood and wound up with a pretty lucrative career. That shouldn’t be the case for Stenhouse. First off, there’s a little too much Cabbage Patch Kid DNA in his genes. He should avoid sounding whiny at all costs. Secondly, as recently as last year he was facing the very real possibility of losing his ride he’d torn up so much equipment. Now that he’s had some minor success (and is in fact the points leader in the Nationwide series) all of a sudden young Ricky is going to tell everyone else in the series (including the current Cup points leader) what is and what isn’t acceptable as far as driving and passing for the lead?
After the race Stenhouse was still steamed. C’mon, Kid, you won the race, you took over the points lead. Smile a bit and have a few beers. Edwards was diplomatic if not apologetic after the race and took the extra step of noting that Stenhouse was going to be a star of the sport for years if he’ll just calm down a bit.
And that’s when I heard it. The cameras were still rolling as a Roush official approached Edwards trying to diffuse the situation. With all the background noise it was tough to make out what was being said but what I did hear (and my buddy watching the race with me heard as well) was Edwards being told, “He (Stenhouse) thinks you hate him.” Sweet Sunday afternoons in Sandusky! What are we going for here? Have Carl rush over and give Ricky a big life-affirming hug? Gag. This is stock car racing, man-child. There’s going to be days you tangle with your best friends over the same piece of real estate. Grow a pair and get used to it, or if you are so desperate for approval and warmth fill in an application to replace Regis Philbin on talk TV.
Enough about Saturday and the emotionally needy Mr. Stenhouse. Sunday’s race at Pocono was no classic. One of the few dramatic moments that actually got fans’ attention was the last lap battle between Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson for third.
Here’s what I saw. Johnson was up high out of Turn 1. Busch dove below him to make a pass. We’ll give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and say that he didn’t know the (garishly painted yellow and red) No. 22 car was below him, but he seemed to dive low and hit Busch. Again, no big deal. It was incidental contact in the grand scheme of things. Busch not knowing if the contact was accidental or an intentional attempt to block the pass responded in kind, giving Johnson a small lick in the door to indicate all things being equal he’d just as soon take the third spot. Johnson nudged Busch again and Busch did the same. Again, it was no big deal. Neither car was badly damaged. Both rolled on to finish line under full steam and Busch prevailed in the battle for third spot.
Racing for a spot up front on the last lap of a stock car race? Everybody’s happy, right? Oh, no, our friend Mr. Johnson was not. He was, in fact, prepared to launch into the Mother of All Hissy Fits. He strode over to the No. 22 car to discuss the contact. While the discussion was heated even after Busch climbed from his car there was no evidence either driver ever seriously considered throwing a punch. Busch tried repeatedly to give Johnson his version of events complete with wildly gesticulating hand motions to represent the cars. Each time Johnson would turn around in disgust walk a few steps away then turn on his heel to resume the argument.
A friend of mine highly positioned with a Cup team has a nickname for Johnson. He calls him “The Maestro.” It seems with five consecutive titles under his belt, The Maestro has a bit of an ego problem going on. He can run others hard but they can not pay him back in kind. He is the Maestro. Each of his five titles entitles him to another foot of space between the No. 48 and the cars trying to overtake him. Another driver may enter that five-foot “no fly” zone only after radioing a impassioned entreaty to the No. 48 spotter to be able to broach the zone briefly. Johnson has even gotten into pissing matches with the co-owner of his team and his longtime friend Jeff Gordon as to what is appropriate conduct in the realm and age of the Maestro.
Johnson’s post-race interview was a disgrace. He went on to add that there were a couple other drivers who were “pushing their luck” with him. So was Johnson just standing his ground with the warning? I don’t know. He sounded more like a toddler standing in a well-crapped diaper crying because some other kid got his cookie.
It’s almost ironic Johnson chose to blast Busch for what amounted to incidental contact after what happened at Pocono last year. Remember this highly dangerous fiasco triggered by the No. 48 car?
So if you’re going to earn millions racing stock cars, by all means please grow a pair and realize that it’s the nature of the sport fenders are going to get bent, tires and going to smoke, and occasionally you’re going to get knocked out of the way in a none-too-polite manner. Deal with it, and by all means… quit whining.
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